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Chef vs. Chef Week Four: Eric Grutka Beats Brian Cartenuto With Papaya-Sardine Ice Cream

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.

As the saying goes, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Well, if you’re Eric Grutka of Ian’s Tropical Grill in Stuart, and life gives you sardines, you make ice cream. 

Grutka’s worthy adversary was Brian Cartenuto, Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen season one winner and owner of cult burger joint Tucker Duke’s Lunchbox (locations in Deerfield Beach, Boca Raton, and Niceville).

Three heavy hitters made up the judging panel: Stephanie Miskew, certified sommelier and proprietor of the Wine Atelier (an online wine boutique); chef George Patti, co-owner of M.E.A.T. Eatery and Taproom in Boca Raton and the reigning king of the burger in South Florida; and chef Jason Pereira, a native of St. Kitts and onetime pupil of three-star Michelin chef Daniel Humm at the NoMad Hotel in New York City.

The three secret ingredients of the night were actually pretty tame. First: abalone mushrooms, grown in the Pacific Northwest and prized for their earthy, buttery flavor. Next: wild-caught Florida sardines. Third: chicken livers, referred to as the “offal gateway drug” by Chef vs. Chef MC Eric Baker.
"What are you making, Eric Grutka?" asked Baker. "Is it a sardine chawanmushi?" (A Japanese dashi and egg custard.) 

"I can’t tell you, but it’s going to be my most risky dish. It might make or break me tonight," said Grutka. 

In the meantime, Cartenuto set about making the fastest pasta dough ever — like, in under five minutes.
He seared chicken livers in a ripping-hot cast iron pan, then threw them in the Robot-Coupe to turn them into mousse.

Just after the 20-minute mark, Grutka brought out his first dish: an appetizer of tempura-fried abalone mushrooms with a soy ginger dipping sauce. “This is what they call umami,” said judge Miskew after taking a bite.

Cartenuto followed up with a chicken liver mousse Bánh mì sandwich with shaved raw vegetables. “I can tell you’ve toasted bread before,” said judge Patti. “Home run,” said judge Pereira. “Mic drop moment. The textures were fabulous. Bravo, chef,” said Miskew.

As time ticked away, the chefs danced around each other and even did the Roger Rabbit (or the Kid 'n' Play, if you like) to '90s hip-hop jams.Cartenuto hurried his second dish to the judges' table as he shook his booty to “Baby Got Back,” gingerly keeping four plates aloft. Mediterranean in concept, it was a whole grilled sardine topped with a composed slaw of shaved celery, sliced tomato, shallots, good olive oil, and a sprinkling of Banyuls vinegar. The judges agreed that more acid would  have cut the oiliness of the fish.

“The sardine may have worked better as an escabeche,” said Baker.

Grutka’s second dish was a salt-cured sardine sashimi with soy aioli and honey-nectarine purée.

“The sweetness complements the saltiness. Fresh, lovely, balanced,” said Miskew. 

Next up, Grutka's liver and onions, with the addition of seared abalone mushrooms. “Holy f—kin’ shit,” said Patti.

Pereira said, “I took a bite and, I swear to God, I thought I’d drop the mic and go the f—k home. That was so close to perfection, it’s stupid."

Cartenuto brought out a third dish, handmade gnocchi with crème fraîche, lemon zest, chives, and an egg yolk to break and mix into the sauce. “Rich comfort food. Satisfying, decadent, hearty, and delicious," said Miskew.

Ever the wordsmith, Grutka’s fourth dish was country fried chicken livers with “red eye-oli” (mayonnaise spiked with coffee, a play on Southern red eye gravy). “What does your shirt say? Mr. Delicious? Well, this is Mr. Delicious on a plate. I’m not sharing this one with you, Eric Baker. Fabulous,” said Miskew.

Cartenuto also did a fried chicken liver as his fourth dish. He paired his with crispy shallots, paper-thin raw garlic, scallions, chives, and a dijonnaise dipping sauce.Cartenuto’s final dish was “forgotten” smoked sardines with Granny Smith apples, smoked abalone mushrooms, tomatoes, and dijonnaise. The judges enjoyed the balanced of smoky, sweet, and sour.

Then, things got weird. That “make or break” dish that Grutka promised prebattle finally materialized: papaya-sardine ice cream, garnished with crushed hazelnuts and lime zest. 

The moment was tense as the judges dipped into the ice cream. "It confuses the palate. I can’t stop eating it,” said Miskew. Pereira called Grutka out to the judges' table to give him a hug. “This is the difference between two Michelin stars and three Michelin stars. I wish you could all taste this," he said.

The ice cream sealed the deal for Grutka, and he took the win.

The best thing about Chef vs. Chef is that everyone is friends at the end. “Win or lose, we had fun. There was some really good energy in the kitchen," said Cartenuto.

Stay tuned for next week, when Victor Franco of Oceans 234 in Deerfield Beach battles Kevin Darr of City Cellar in West Palm Beach.

Chef vs. Chef takes place at 9 p.m. every Wednesday through September at Max's Harvest (169 NE Second Ave., Delray Beach.) 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.
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Claudia Dawson