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.
Chef Clayton Carnes is counting the days until the opening of his first solo venture, Cholo Soy Cocina (try saying that three times fast), this summer. The place will pay homage to the Latin street food and Andean cuisine Carnes embraced while working in Cuenca, Ecuador. On Wednesday night, he faced off against Tryst's amiable executive chef John Thomas, who made it to the final round of Chef vs. Chef against Café Boulud’s Jimmy Strine last year.
Judging the fast-paced battle were Cary Roman, founder of livingfla.com, the man behind the camera at almost every food and wine event in the area; chef Aaron Fuller, food and beverage director at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago; and chef Aaron Black of PB Catch Seafood & Raw Bar and the culinary mind behind
Three secret ingredients, as usual, were donated by Sunshine Provisions:
Chinese black vinegar is made from fermented grains such as rice, sorghum, wheat, or millet. Ink black in color, it’s aged for a malty, smoky flavor.
Beef marrow bones are the unsung heroes of the kitchen. The base for dishes like the French pot au feu, the Vietnamese pho, and the Italian
Finally, okra, also known as ladies’ fingers,
Within the first fifteen minutes, Carnes brought out the first dish of the night: charred baby octopus with black vinegar ponzu, jalapeño, cilantro, and lemon balm. “The mellow, sweet vinegar and the tenderness of the octopus
"The okra was a little slimy,” said Black. "The sliminess should be embraced. It’s like ectoplasm. I just saw the new Ghostbusters movie."
Thomas' first dish was a straightforward roasted marrow bone with pickled okra, gremolata (a classic Milanese condiment of garlic, parsley, and lemon zest, traditionally served with
“The marrow was cooked well. Decent dish," said Black. "The marrow needs acid to play off the fattiness."
Bowls of steaming soup came out next, Thomas making good use of the marrow bones in a rich, fortified stock with sliced Denver steak, maitake mushrooms, rice noodles, scallions, black vinegar, and sesame seeds.
"An all-around beautiful dish," said Roman.
"The broth makes the dish," said Fuller.The well-paced battle continued with Carnes' third dish,
“Buttery, soft, rich, herbaceous," said Black. “Very subtle, and it has some texture to it. I like it; that’s all I have to say."
Carnes utilized an immersion circulator, donated to the battle by Aaron Michaels of Culinary Convenience, for his final course: sous vide marrow flavored with red miso and rested on a diminutive circle of brioche, topped with Maine lobster, trout roe, toasted pistachios, bone marrow butter, and hibiscus leaves.
Black seemed on the fence with this one: "That’s a tasty little toast. I’m still thinking about it."Earlier, Thomas had been hand-rolling tortillas and squishing them in a tortilla press. His veggie tostada with charred okra, watermelon radish, and black vinegar aioli was perfectly executed.
“It was ballsy to bring a taco against the taco guy,” said Black.
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Baker agreed: “JT gave Cholo Soy a lesson on taco shells.”Carnes served up a cocktail in lieu of dessert. His black vinegar old fashioned with Angostura bitters and a tableside orange twist featured Zhumir, a cane liquor from Ecuador.
Thomas whipped up a zabaione, using the black vinegar, for his dessert. He served it with slices of nectarine and pineapple and garnished the plate with a chiffonade of basil and lemon verbena as well as a splash of Carnes' Zhumir liquor.
Wednesday night might have been one of the most difficult — if not the most difficult — battles to call, with both chefs bringing their very best to the judges' table. In the end, the final decision went to Carnes, who will go on to the semifinals, which begin next week with Jordan Lerman (Jardin) and Anthony Fiorini (13 American Table).
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.