Chef vs. Chef is a 16-week competition at Max's Harvest hosted by chef Eric Baker that pits local chefs against one another, cooking up surprise ingredients for a panel of judges — and our tasting pleasure.
Wednesday night marked the last battle of the semifinal round. Two weeks from now, only one chef will remain standing. Neither Clayton Carnes of Cholo Soy Cocina or Kevin Darr of City Cellar, each with two victories, showed up to lose.
Lending their expertise to the judge’s table were Rick Mace, executive chef of Café Boulud in Palm Beach; Scott Varricchio, executive chef of Citrus Grillhouse in Vero Beach; and Jeffrey Weinstein, who is not a chef but is adventurous enough to have eaten “the best sushi of his life” from a gas station in Santa Fe.
Sunshine Provisions donated the three secret ingredients:
- Yuzu kosho is trending right now. It’s a condiment made with yuzu (Japanese citrus) peel, fermented chili paste (usually Thai or bird’s eye chiles), and salt. As far as food trends go, it just might be the next kimchi.
- Black forbidden rice, an heirloom grain once eaten by the emperors of China, has a nutty flavor and deep purplish-black color and is high in antioxidants.
- Blue crabs are synonymous with the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S., particularly the Chesapeake Bay. However, they are also native to the Gulf of Mexico around Louisiana.
The last supersecret ingredient was an enormous golden tilefish, caught off the coast of Boynton Beach by Vince Palmer of Third Wind Seafood. The fish was so fresh, it was still in rigor mortis when it hit the cutting board.
Both chefs crafted cocktails for their first rounds. Darr’s was a yuzu kosho margarita, sans the signature salted rim. “I would have preferred a rim job,” said Weinstein. Carnes' cocktail used smoky mezcal, yuzu kosho, and agave nectar. “This one is smokier, deeper, and more developed,” said Varricchio.
Second-round dishes utilized the tilefish in its raw state, Carnes using the tender "cheeks," or jaw muscles, which he wasted no time digging out as soon as he could. His crab and tilefish cheek ceviche had fresno chile, passionfruit, and coconut milk. “It’s like a girl who’s way too pretty just kissed you,” said Weinstein. Translation: He liked it a lot.
Darr brought a tilefish and toro crudo with sea beans, fermented black beans, and yuzu kosho vinaigrette. “The tuna stole the show… It should have been more about the tilefish,” said Mace.
Darr’s third dish was a tempura tilefish taco with an India pale ale aioli. He finely ground the black rice to make a flour for the tempura batter. “The sauce makes the dish,” said Mace. “Every fish and chips in the world should be like this one,” said Weinstein.
Carnes’ third dish was pan-roasted tilefish with steamed black rice and yuzu kosho lime cream sauce. “It needed a bit of salt, but the fish was cooked perfectly,” said Varricchio.
Carnes got in some more taco-making practice for his fourth course, a crab and tilefish taco with Brussels slaw and yuzu mayo. Although it used every secret ingredient, it failed to wow the judges (except for Weinstein, who loved the “pretty” presentation). "What about a black rice tortilla at Cholo Soy?" asked Baker.
Darr lost the lead with his fourth course, a too-rare Wagyu NY strip steak with curried goat butter. “I like my wagyu cooked medium… I like those fats activated,” said Baker.
Desserts followed, Carnes missing the mark with apples and yuzu kosho-spiced chocolate and Darr getting playful with a forbidden rice pancake with yuzu kosho curd and coconut cream. Darr gave the curd a slight brulee on top, caramelizing the sugar. The textures played off one another beautifully — fluffy pancake, smooth curd, crunchy burnt sugar, airy coconut cream. It was a complex dessert, but it worked. "Beautiful use of the ingredients," said Mace. "Kevin's best dish," said Varricchio.
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The conclusion: Carnes' composition of a complete menu, with an adherence to his personal style, gave him the win. Additionally, the judges felt that Darr didn't use the secret ingredients as the focal points of his dishes as well as Carnes did.
Don't miss next week, the second-to-last Chef vs. Chef battle of the year, when Carnes faces off with "Mr. Delicious" Eric Grutka of Ian's Tropical Grill.
Chef vs. Chef takes place at Max's Harvest in Delray Beach at 10 p.m. every Wednesday through September. The 16-week event series is open to the public for a $5 donation, which benefits the Milagro Center, a Delray Beach-based nonprofit that works to enrich children’s lives through the cultural arts and academic support. Your admission gets you one glass of wine, beer, or cocktail and a seat for the culinary action.