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.
What do Hannibal Lecter, zombies, and Sicilian grandmothers all have in common (other than being huge Pavarotti fans)? Their love of eating brains, of course. And for good reason: Brains are really, really tasty. Lamb’s brains, as we learned on Wednesday night, are definitely among the best types of brains to eat (sorry, Dr. Lecter). If you’ve ever had veal sweetbreads (from the thymus gland), you’re not too far from brains. Both kinds of offal, when prepared correctly, have a creamy, custard-like texture and a delicate flavor.
Lamb’s brains, along with jackfruit and Turtle Creek goat cheese from Loxahatchee — all generously donated by uberlocal purveyor Sunshine Provisions — were the stars of the evening.
Jackfruit has been trending heavily lately due to its popularity as a meat substitute. Unripe jackfruit, when cooked, is said to have a texture like pulled chicken or pork, but the only people who actually think so are vegans. Upton’s Naturals sells packaged jackfruit in flavors like “chili lime carnitas” and features a drawing of a mustachioed 18th-century dandy as its logo, so it’s impossible for hipsters not to buy. Eric Grutka, AKA Mr. Delicious, owner/executive chef of Ian’s Tropical Grill in Stuart, wore a “Chef Knives Matter” T-shirt to the battle. Adam Brown, executive chef at the Cooper in Palm Beach Gardens, brought his A-game.
Brian Cartenuto of Tucker Duke’s Lunchbox returned to liven up the competition, this time as a judge (he lost to Grutka in Week 4), along with Rey de la Osa, resident chef at the Boca Raton Publix Aprons cooking school, and Chef vs. Chef veteran competitor Blake Malatesta.
The battle began with Grutka’s jackfruit piña colada with avocado, “young coconut meat,” dulce de leche, and rum. Cartenuto wasn’t impressed. “That wasn’t a piña colada. I love piña coladas — and getting caught in the rain,” he said.
Brown’s first plate was a pumpkin-seed-crusted goat cheese with cherry hazelnut vinaigrette and mustard greens. “The goat cheese was creamy, and the pumpkin seeds added a nice crunch,” said de la Osa.
Grutka followed up with “twelve-minute scrambled eggs,” the best scrambled eggs the competition has seen yet. He mixed goat cheese and brown butter into the eggs and topped them with salty bacon lardons, rissolee lamb’s brains, and a sprinkling of chives. After a taste, Cartenuto fell in love with his former rival.
“I’d go from a top to a bottom for you, Eric,” he said.
Malatesta said, “The eggs have the texture of ricotta cheese, with a beautiful creaminess and flavor. The bacon made up for the lack of salt. I’d eat this for breakfast any time of the day.”
Brown’s next dish was the favorite of the night: a lamb brain fritter with red onion marmalade and salsa verde.
“The perfect bite. Sweet, vinegary, no flaws in this dish,” said Cartenuto. It had texture (crispy outside and creamy inside of the fritter), herbaceousness (the salsa verde), and a balance of sweetness and acidity (the marmalade).
An eggy clafoutis with jackfruit caramel, served in a mini cast iron pan, was Brown’s next course. The presentation was lackluster and the texture was too chewy, but the judges agreed that the flavor was there.
Next, it was Grutka’s turn. His double-dipped goat cheese croquette with guava-jalapeño sauce and grilled lime was a menu-worthy bite you’d want to order again.
“Lemme drop it like it’s hot,” said Cartenuto. “It only needed one dip.”
Brown’s final dish was lamb’s brains with brown butter caper sauce and sautéed jackfruit. The judges appreciated the classic French preparation.
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Grutka still had two more dishes up his sleeve for a total of five. Country-fried lamb brains on jackfruit-chipotle aioli had an addictive crunchy/creamy texture, with a smoky heat that built up slowly. His dessert, a goat cheese and mascarpone cannoli, rested on the same jackfruit-jalapeño sauce he used for his croquette. It worked.
“This is called cross-utilization, and it’s how we make money in the restaurant business,” said Cartenuto.
After a brief deliberation by the judges, Mr. Delicious (Grutka) emerged as the night’s winner and will move on to the next round.
Tune in next week to see Kevin Darr (City Cellar) battle Jessie Steele (CWS) in the quarterfinals.
Chef vs. Chef takes place at Max's Harvest in Delray Beach at 10 p.m. every Wednesday through September. The 16-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.