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Chef vs. Chef 2016 Week Five: Battle Bovine Features Victor Franco and Kevin Darr

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.

In battles past, we’ve seen chefs hit with crazy ingredients like lamb’s head and sea sperm. This week, they got...
Steak? Really?

To be fair, this was no supermarket steak. Grass-fed, grass-finished flat iron steak from Joyce Farms in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was the first secret ingredient of the evening. From true Aberdeen Angus, a breed that can be traced back to Scotland in 1842, the flat iron steak (also called the top blade steak) comes from the shoulder. This flavorful, beefy cut of meat was all but unknown until 2002, when it was developed by research teams from the University of Florida.

In the interest of transparency, most grass-fed cattle are actually grain-finished. This makes a difference because a cow’s natural diet is — you guessed it — grass. As the previously grass-fed animal approaches the time of slaughter, however, many are fed grain to pack on extra bulk. A grass-fed/grass-finished diet results in healthier cows and, by extension, better-tasting beef.

In keeping with the bovine theme, the second secret ingredient was Cypress Point Creamery Flatwoods feta cheese. John and Nancy Mims own and operate the Hawthorne dairy, which has been in existence since 1976, but didn’t begin producing artisan cheeses until 2009. All of their cheeses come from Jersey cows, a small breed of dairy cattle popular for the high butterfat content of their milk. This feta is rich and creamy, similar to French feta, and not briny or overly salty.

The third secret ingredient, right at home with beef and cheese, was summer truffle sauce. Summer truffles, or Burgundy truffles, with their equally smelly and delicious appeal, "aren't fungi, but tubers, contrary to popular belief," said Chef vs. Chef MC Eric Baker.
The men tasked with manipulating all of these lovely ingredients were Victor Franco, executive chef of Oceans 234 in Deerfield Beach, and Kevin Darr, executive chef of City Cellar in West Palm Beach.

Lending culinary credibility to the judging panel was wunderkind Jeremy Hanlon, executive chef of Benny’s on the Beach in Lake Worth. Charlie Trotter himself offered Hanlon a paid internship at his eponymous Chicago restaurant. (In the feudal world of haute cuisine, most culinary school interns expect to endure insane amounts of abuse for free.) After that came Daniel in New York City, Arzak in Spain, and Triosgros and Guy Savoy in France, all temples of gastronomy.

Johnny Mazza, general manager of Max’s Grille in Boca Raton, and returning judge Danielle Linscott, wine and spirits rep, rounded out the panel.

Unbeknownst to most of the spectators that night, there was something clandestine going on in a back room at Max's Harvest. A secret "meatatorium" was set up, with wooden boards offering a smorgasbord of delicious meats — prosciutto, speck, truffled ham, and finocchiona — as well as an array of cheeses from Cypress Point Creamery; cold-pressed olive oils and infused vinegars; fresh-baked bread; and local honey. All of this deliciousness and the other night's ingredients were donated by Sunshine Provisions.
Darr plated up the first dish, a stone fruit salad of nectarines, cherries, arugula, feta, and lemon vinaigrette. Mazza called it “crisp, tender, but overdressed.” Linscott agreed. “Straightforward, bold flavors," said Hanlon.

Franco's first dish was a potato latke with smoked salmon (from Pierre’s in Lake Park) and truffle purée. "It felt like Sunday brunch. Everything was awesome for me," said Mazza.

Darr’s second dish was a garlicky, Peruvian-style steak tartare with aji amarillo, cilantro, lime, shallot, and a potato chip garnish. The judges felt the dish could have used more seasoning. 

Franco’s second dish was a composed salad of baby spinach, feta, paper-thin red onion, red and yellow grape tomatoes, and cucumber tossed in a bright citrus vinaigrette. He followed that up with sliced flat iron steak over a truffled turnip purée, a roasted red pepper sauce, and crispy onions. It was Mazza’s favorite dish, although heavy on the black pepper. “The steak was five-star on this one,” he said. “The bomb-dot-com,” said Linscott.Darr utilized the pasta machine for his third dish: a humungous tortelloni filled with pancetta, Swiss chard, and gooey stracchino (an Italian cow’s milk cheese). Unfortunately, the profligate use of pancetta made the dish too salty.

Franco brought out zucchini fritters with feta and a yogurt mint sauce. Garnished with grape tomatoes and micro greens, the plate was a beauty but the fritters were a bit soggy.

Darr’s final dish was ricotta gnocchi with a pancetta and beef ragu jazzed up with tomato and red wine. “The gnocchi is just right and the beef is tender,” said Linscott.“Let the Italian from Philly try it!" said Baker. (The Italian from Philly being Pete Stampone, general manager of Max's Harvest). “The sauce was nappe and perfect, and you can taste the truffle. A little salty, though,” said Stampone. “A hearty ending and a good progression,” said Hanlon.

With some decent dishes and missteps on either side, the battle came down to who took the bigger risks. Darr, who very ambitiously made two pasta dishes in an hour, took the win.

Stay tuned for next week, when Blake Malatesta of M.I.A. goes up against Jesse Steele of CWS.

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.
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Claudia Dawson