Each week at Max’s Harvest in Delray Beach, two local chefs face off in a frenzied, hourlong culinary battle featuring three bizarre secret ingredients; loads of scantily-clad, shrieking chef groupies; and a live DJ spinning as much Fetty Wap and Pitbull as you can twerk to without spilling your Sauvignon Blanc. This is Chef vs. Chef, and it’s back with a sequel.
This week’s chef face-off was between Victor Meneses of El Camino, who ousted two opponents last year to ascend to the final battle against 2015 champ James "Jimmy" Strine of Café Boulud in Palm Beach, and battle newcomer Anthony Fiorini of 13 American Table in Boca Raton.
“It’s food. We’re cooking. It’s fun!” said Fiorini, while getting a feel for the open kitchen. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, Meneses was stoic and silent as he readied himself for battle.
This week’s judging panel consisted of Tim Eagan, advanced-level sommelier and experienced beverage director who will be opening a new West Palm Beach eatery with Top Chef finalist Lindsay Autry later this summer; Justin Thompkins, a Delray local who's "always down for happy hour and a great meal"; and chef Robyn Almodovar, culinary daredevil, Hell’s Kitchen finalist, and owner/proprietor of Palate Party, a South Florida-based food truck.
In true Iron Chef fashion, the main ingredients of the evening's dishes were kept secret until the last moment for a big reveal. Sunshine Provisions, a new local purveyor of artisanal foodstuffs, donated all three.
First: yellow Chinese chives. Similar to garlic chives, they are a species of onion native to Asia, specifically the Himalayas (Nepal, Bhutan, and India). A cultivar of cold climates, they are grown under cover without exposure to direct sunlight, hence the yellow (not green) pigment.
Next up: the Silkie black chicken. Also native to China, their skin, bones, and internal organs are entirely black in color. Silkies owe their unusual black color to fibromelanosis, a rare genetic mutation of hyperpigmentation believed to have first arisen in China. This five-toed freak of a bird is also bred for its exotic good looks and friendly temperament, making it a great pet (to eat). But, in all honesty, it’s not the best breed of chicken to eat, given its scrawny build and lack of fat. When it is eaten, it's usually in soups.
And last, the duck egg. A ramped-up version of the chicken’s unfertilized embryo, an egg from a duck has a much bigger and richer yolk, a higher concentration of nutrients, and more protein. Typically 50 percent larger in size, duck eggs come in all sorts of colors, from caramel to sea foam. Historic fatty Henry VIII would have demanded his omelet be made with duck eggs.
The chefs got down to butchering the small chickens, Meneses choosing the tedious task of deboning the tiny legs. As he worked on that, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and almonds roasted in the oven.
"I see chef Meneses brought his molcajete," said Eric Baker, executive chef at Max's Harvest and Chef vs. Chef MC. "No Mexican leaves home without one!"On the other side of "kitchen stadium," Fiorini got down to separating duck eggs yolks for pasta.
Soon, reductions were boiling, the Robot-Coupe was buzzing, the Vitamix was whizzing, and it was all business in the kitchen. Fiorini used an Italian pasta machine to roll out sheets of duck-egg pasta, which he then cut by hand into Pappardelle — a long, wide pasta usually served with a ragu of braised meat. Meneses mixed the scant amount of chicken leg meat he ground in the Robot-Coupe with harissa (Tunisian hot chili pepper paste), dried chile powder, and fresh cilantro. As the half-hour mark approached, neither chef had yet presented a dish and Baker was getting impatient.
Meneses hurried out to the judges' table with the first dish: Silkie chicken kefte with dried smoked chiles and golden raisins, served on top of a swoosh of tzatziki. "Amazing," said Thompkins.
Fiorini followed with his first dish, seared pork belly "bruschetta" on grilled ciabatta with a fried duck egg, sautéed Chinese chives, and vincotto. Essentially bacon and eggs, the judges enjoyed Fiorini's interpretation.
With only 20 minutes left on the clock, Meneses brought out a second dish, a classic French creation of soft scrambled eggs served inside a hollowed-out eggshell, garnished with pork belly lardons and truffle oil. Almodovar loved the dish: "You're bringing old school back, son!" she said.
While the judges ate, Fiorini had been creating some amazing smells in the kitchen. When he brought out his pappardelle dish, the scent wafted throughout the restaurant: braised chicken, sautéed mushrooms and chives, butter, and Pecorino-Romano. "Spot-on, bro," said Baker.With ten minutes left (at Chef vs. Chef, time is relative), both chefs presented their third and final dishes. Meneses' was deceptively simple — seared chicken breast over two sauces, one a mole, the other he called "leche de oro," or golden milk (a reduction of heavy cream and blanched chives). Thinly sliced radishes and pickled shallots garnished the plate. It was a clever juxtaposition of French haute cuisine and centuries-old Mexican culture.
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Fiorini's final dish was a braised chicken leg and thigh over roasted fingerling potatoes, seared chanterelle mushrooms, seared fresh grapes, and yellow chives.
It was a close battle between two equally matched chefs. However, the judges agreed that in the end, it came down to the progression of courses and the finality of the third dish, and Fiorini took the night. He presented a first course (bruschetta), a midcourse (pappardelle), and a main course (braised chicken) as it would be served at a restaurant. Meneses presented three very imaginative courses that all seemed like appetizers. There is no rule against this, though. Points are not given or taken away based on any presupposed notions of dining. That the battle came down to a very insignificant difference shows the skill of both chefs.
Stay tuned in for next week's battle, featuring Adam Brown of the Cooper and Aaron Goldberg of Bogart's.
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 $10 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.