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 Jesse Steele, Florida Culinary Institute alum, leads the back of the house with a punk-rock philosophy at C.W.S. Bar + Kitchen in Lake Worth. When he’s not cooking, he’s playing bass for a local ska/reggae band and collecting psychedelic cat T-shirts.
Chef Blake Malatesta, a Southern gentleman who grew up on a sugar cane farm in LaPlace, Louisiana (the official Andouille Capital of the World), was the winner of 2015’s Feast of the Sea competition. He's worked in Costa Rica, Mexico, France, Italy, Germany, Romania, Turkey, and Moldova. Stay tuned for his new venture, M.I.A. (Modern, Inventive, Authentic) Kitchen and Bar, opening up in west Delray Beach this fall.
At the judges' table this week was one new face, Nicole Votano, chef and director of operations at Dirt in Miami. A supporter of the farming community in Florida, she strives to use ingredients from local artisans and to make dishes affordable for her clientele. A last-minute change up brought back Stephen Chrisanthus, associate director of the Delray Beach Marketing Cooperative (DBMC), and Ben Burger, Neiman Marcus executive chef and 2015 Chef vs. Chef competitor. As always, MC Eric Baker was on hand to entertain the crowd with culinary trivia (and to yell the lyrics to Run-D.M.C.'s "It's Tricky" into the microphone).
The battle's secret ingredients, as always, were gifted by Sunshine Provisions.
Principe speck Alto Adige is a lightly smoked cured ham, slightly firmer and darker in color than prosciutto. It's glorious eaten by itself (try keeping some next to the bed at all times) or as part of an antipasto, and it can also replace bacon or pancetta as a slightly smoky, salty base for sauces and stews.
Grass-fed water buffalo burrata looks similar to a ball of fresh mozzarella on the outside, but there's a surpise on the inside. When it's cut open, it reveals a center of fresh cream and pieces of mozzarella that ooze onto the plate. It's arguably the sexiest of all cheeses.
Indian baby eggplant are two to three inches in length and extremely versatile. They come in many varieties, shapes, and colors, including purple, lavender, white, and light green.
Malatesta’s first dish was a play on toad-in-the-hole, a favorite British breakfast dish. A neat square of brioche with a ball of burrata inside, instead of the traditional egg, rested on a light puddle of white balsamic hollandaise sauce. “He nailed it,” said Chrisanthus. “The sweetness of the brioche goes with the tartness of the hollandaise,” said Votano.
Baker thought the hollandaise was too “eggy,” however. “It needs more butter. As much butter as one egg could possibly hold, then more butter,” he said, echoing the mantras of Old Guard fatty-livered French chefs.
Steele’s first dish was simply one bite: an oven-baked speck cup with a tiny quail egg baked inside. Chrysanthus thought the speck was too salty (because it had been baked, thus losing some of its water and concentrating the salt). "Not everyone eats the way a chef eats,” said Baker. “Our palates are desensitized to salt.”
Malatesta’s second dish, an antipasto course, was Sicilian eggplant caponata made with golden raisins, pine nuts, honey, and vinegar. It was topped with micro mustard greens for bitterness offset by a sweet and savory pecan and speck streusel. “It was all of the components and layers of flavor, but I wish it was on top of something. Caponata is usually a topping,” Burger said. Baker saw it a different way. “Normally, yes, there’s bread on the bottom. But here, the bread — in this case, the streusel — is on the top,” he said. “And where’s the cocoa powder in my caponata?” he demanded. (Surprisingly, like some Mexican moles, the recipe for Sicilian caponata calls for bitter dark chocolate.)
Steele’s second dish was burrata on basil pesto with a brunoise of summer vegetables, honey gastrique, and toasted bread crumbs. It looked beautiful but failed to impress the judges. The biggest problem was the honey gastrique. (A gastrique is normally equal parts sweet and acidic. This gastrique was all sweet.) “Completely off balance,” Votano said.
Steele’s third dish redeemed the previous one: a vegetable curry topped with half of a breaded, fried baby eggplant with naan bread and cilantro yogurt for dipping. The judges appreciated the cohesive theme and the fact that Steele gave the eggplant top billing. “I made the naan,” said Baker.
Malatesta’s second dish was a cast-iron-seared Denver steak (a heavily marbled cut from the chuck) over roasted eggplant and garlic purée, with pomegranate and speck butter sauce and chili pepper emulsion. “Sweet, heat, salt,” said Votano.
Spinach and burrata malfatti followed, which Malatesta served with a champagne vinegar beurre blanc and speck vinaigrette, shaved Brussels sprouts, and lemon. The malfatti were bound with ricotta and stracciatella in addition to the burrata. “I’m conflicted about this dish,” said Chrisanthus, as were the other judges. "The malfatti were overworked," said Votano.
Steele's final two dishes were back-to-back dessert courses. The first was compressed honeydew and fresh cantaloupe with zabaione, toasted almonds, and micro mint. The judges loved it. But there was one problem: It didn’t use any of the secret ingredients. The judges didn’t seem to care, though. “[Steele] thought beyond the ingredients,” joked Baker. (In a timely “I meant to do that” moment, Steele hustled out to the judges' table to sprinkle their plates, tableside, with julienned crispy speck.)
Steele's second dessert was burrata with strawberry-blueberry coulis and fried ground speck. It didn’t have the same effect as the first dessert and was quickly dismissed.
The most interesting dish of the night was Malatesta’s syrniki, a light pancake made with fresh curd cheese popular in Moldova, where Malatesta's wife is from. After the couple met in the States, "We moved back to Moldova, where I started to appreciate Eastern European cuisine, and that's when she made me the syrniki," said Malatesta. Instead of cottage cheese, Malatesta substituted the filling of the burrata and added golden raisins and 72 percent dark chocolate drops to the mix. He served the pancakes alongside lemon whipped cream and a wild berry compote.
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Although delicious, the pancakes didn't give Malatesta the win. After the judges dissected all of the dishes one by one, it came down to Malatesta's malfatti (which ironically translates to "badly made" in Italian) versus Steele's curry and eggplant fritter, and Steele triumphed.
Stay tuned for next Wednesday's battle, when Jarrod Higgins of Cut 432 finally comes face to face with Kemar Griffiths of the Rusty Hook Tavern.
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.