For the past six weeks, Chef vs. Chef participants and supporters have been wondering, "Who is Kemar Griffiths?"
On Wednesday night, they found out. Three words: tall, dark, and handsome. The Rusty Hook Tavern (New Times 2015 Best Waterfront Dining pick) executive sous chef is a new face among South Florida chefs, having relocated from NYC, where he worked for eccentric chef Paul Liebrandt. Griffiths' opponent was the ever-charming Jarod Higgins of Cut 432, who battled Eric Grutka last year.
Judging the battle were Avocado Grill executive chef Julien Gremaud (who will collaborate with Eric Baker and Grato's Clay Conley to host a special dinner on Tuesday, August 23, with proceeds benefitting Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign), SpiritedSouthFlorida founder and lifestyle editor Renée Korbel Quinn, and Breakthru Beverage program development specialist and award-winning mixologist Nick Nistico.
As usual, the secret ingredients were provided by Sunshine Provisions:
Korean melon, also known as Cameh melon, Golden melon, Oriental melon, and Japanese cantaloupe, is a small, oblong, light-yellow-colored melon with a flavor similar to honeydew.
Red boat fish sauce is a first press, “extra virgin” Vietnamese fish sauce. A staple of southeast Asian cuisine, the amber-colored liquid imparts an unmistakable umami flavor. This particular fish sauce is made from salted black anchovies aged in wooden barrels for a year or more.
Locally caught swordfish has a mild, sweet flavor and a meaty texture. When cooked perfectly it has a buttery texture, but it can become overcooked and tough very quickly.
After the 15-minute brainstorming session concluded, the chefs began slicing up their swordfish. Griffiths was silent and focused as he worked, prompting Baker to ask Griffiths’ supporters in the front row, “Is he always like this?” (He is.)
Griffiths presented the first dish: Korean melon gazpacho with apple and ginger. He garnished the light yellow soup with chef Baker’s house-cured bacon and mint oil. “Well balanced,” said Gremaud. “Very seductive,” said Korbel Quinn.
Higgins’ first dish was a “quick-brined” swordfish ceviche with red onion, bell peppers, ahi Amarillo (a Peruvian yellow pepper paste), and lime juice. It was garnished with a strip of crispy fried wonton.
Griffiths’ next dish was grilled swordfish over caramelized leeks and romesco sauce spiked with fish sauce. “You used the fish sauce in the romesco? Good for you, Kemar,” said Baker. “The swordfish was spot on,” said Nistico.
Higgins made “swordfish toast” for his second dish. He made fresh ricotta first, then folded in smoked swordfish and spread the mixture on top of a thick slice of grilled ciabatta bread. Pickled Korean melon added a punch. “It’s like fish rillettes, but it tastes like fish dip to me,” said Gremaud. “I like fish dip,” said Baker.
Higgins’ next dish, coconut-oil-poached swordfish with smoked rice and Korean melon, failed to impress. He followed it up with sriracha-basted swordfish with chives and hazelnut grits. “The grits are exceptional,” said Nistico. “I like the smokiness and pop of the sriracha,” said Korbel Quinn.
Griffiths’ final course was a light financier (a small French cake, similar to a sponge cake, made with brown butter and almond flour) punched up with smoked fish sauce simple syrup (!) and candied Korean melon. The dish was too sweet for Gremaud, but the judges gave Griffiths' points for actually using fish sauce in a dessert.
Lately, it has come down to one particular dish deciding who wins or goes home. That dish was Griffiths' swordfish with caramelized leeks and romesco. The strength of that dish, in addition to his others, gave him the win. Stay tuned until next week, with John Thomas (Tryst) and Clayton Carnes (Cholo Soy Cocina).
Chef vs. Chef takes place at Max's Harvest in Delray Beach at 9 p.m. every Wednesday through September. The 15-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.