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, chefs Jordan Lerman of Jardin and Anthony Fiorini of 13 American Table returned to duke it out in the quarterfinals. Lerman, who wiped the floor with Bruce Feingold of Dada in Week One, looks young, but he’s worked at Eleven Madison Park and Momofuku Ssäm Bar in NYC. Fiorini bested Victor Meneses of El Camino in Week Two and has Union Square Café and a stint in Italy on his resume.
Two-thirds of the judging panel consisted of Daniel Boulud protégés: Zach Bell, executive chef at Addison Reserve Country Club and former executive chef of Café Boulud Palm Beach; and Jennifer Reed of Sugar Monkey, a West Palm Beach-based cake shop that uses natural ingredients like fresh eggs and European-style butter, and former executive pastry chef at Café Boulud Palm Beach; and Baltimore-native Billy Himmelrich, owner of Old School Bakery in Delray Beach, whose wholesale customers include Joe’s Stone Crab, the Fontainebleau, the Breakers, and Café Boulud.
The first secret ingredient of the battle was O-Med Smoked Olive Oil, produced by a young company in Granada, Spain. Smoked Arbequina olive pits give the oil its unusual flavor, with sweet notes of vanilla and caramel.
Burdock root is a slender, brown-skinned root vegetable, similar to lotus root but often confused with salsify. Also known as gobo, it is commonly sold as a medicinal supplement due to its alleged blood-purifying properties.
Beef hearts were the final ingredient, used widely in Latin America in anticuchos, an inexpensive street fare, usually consisting of grilled, skewered lesser cuts of meat. These lesser cuts have become an important part of each Chef vs. Chef battle because Eric Baker (and many other chefs) believe that meat can — and probably should — be a component of a meal but not the main focus. This is not only better for our health but also a way to ensure the sustainability of our protein sources.
“It’s up to us, as chefs, to lead that charge,” Baker said.
The battle began with Fiorini’s first dish: a halved, grilled avocado with ginger-pickled burdock root matchsticks, cherries, micro arugula, and smoked olive oil.
Lerman presented a painterly plate of sliced beef heart carpaccio, a swoosh of burnt onion crème fraîche, pickled cherries, burdock root chips, and a (too light) dusting of sumac, a red berry native to the Middle East that is dried, ground, and used as a spice. It has a bright, citrusy flavor and is a main component in za’atar.
Judges remarked that the dish needed more sumac to bring out the acidity.
Fiorini’s second course was beef heart tartare on Old School Bakery’s grilled ciabatta with micro mustard greens and an egg yolk on top. Roasted maitake mushrooms were strewn around the plate. Reed questioned the necessity of the maitakes in the dish, but Bell thought they lent an earthiness and nuttiness to balance out the vinegar-forward tartare dressing.
Lerman brought out a beef heart anticucho for his second dish, resting in an aji amarillo vinaigrette, with a soft-boiled egg and burdock root shoestrings.
“Billy Himmelrich, what’s the term for shoestring potatoes in French?” asked Baker.
“Pomme pailles,” said Himmelrich. “The cuisson on this dish was perfect.” (He knows his French terminology.)
Main courses followed, Lerman with a smoked-olive-oil-poached Gulf redfish over burdock root purée and wilted Brussels sprouts. It was a lovely dish, though perhaps a bit overseasoned. Bell commended Lerman on his smooth burdock root purée, since the root is notoriously gritty. Fiorini's dish was grilled beef heart over soft polenta with roasted leeks and burdock root. Although Fiorini nailed the polenta and the beef heart, the judges found fault with the leeks (undercooked) and the plating (slightly amateurish).
Desserts came after that, with Lerman serving two: a cheese course of ricotta, grapes, sumac-honey drizzle, small toasts, and smoked olive oil; and a smoked olive oil panna cotta. The cheese course went over better than the panna cotta.
"I'm going to tell the truth," said Himmelrich. "Cooks are not pastry chefs. The taste profile [of the panna cotta] was good, but the construction could have been different."
Fiorini's dessert was simple and well-balanced: a roasted peach with sweet ricotta, almonds, roasted burdock root, and red-wine reduction.
Both chefs presented four dishes, but there must always be one winner.
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"And the winner is... the chef with the most hair!" said Baker. Lerman's technique, his unique use of the ingredients, and his artistic plating garnered him the win.
Stay tuned for next week, when Eric Grutka of Ian's Tropical Grill battles Adam Brown of the Cooper.
Chef vs. Chef takes place at Max's Harvest in Delray Beach at 10 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.