After fifteen grueling weeks, we find ourselves at the end of the road for Chef vs. Chef. But, like Boyz II Men, we can’t let go. It’s unnatural. This event belongs to us and we belong to it.
In this last battle, Café Boulud’s Jimmy Strine faced off against Tryst’s John Thomas.
As Floridians, we think we know gator. The reptile is the mascot for the University of Florida, after all. But ask many native south Floridians if they’ve actually eaten gator, and they’ll probably say no. We don’t know gator like we should. Louisianans, our neighbors to the northwest, know all about gator. They can cook it up a million ways, and twice that on Sunday. (The Archbishop of New Orleans has ordained gator a non-meat meat, so it can be eaten during Lent.) Thankfully, there was a native Louisianan on tonight’s judging panel: Chef Blake Malatesta of 50 Ocean (week 8 competitor). He lent his years of expertise eating wild gator in the bayou to the judging panel. This particular 40 pound skinned gator, however, was farm-raised, and therefore it didn’t have the metallic flavor that the wild garbage-eating Louisiana gator of his childhood had. Lucky us.
The most tender gator meat is from the tail, jaw, and tenderloin. Body meat has a stronger flavor and a tougher texture, similar to pork shoulder. There is also meat in the feet. Mad props to Jan “Sommoradat” Costa from the Florida Fresh Meat Co. for personally hunting, killing and skinning the gator with his bare hands. Plus, he found the time to make Chef Eric Baker a pair of assless “gator chaps”, too. (We know "assless chaps" is technically redundant as all chaps are assless, but who can pass up the opportunity to use the word assless. Not us.)
What did we find inside the gator? Baker said, “A pair of shoelaces, a license plate, and Jimmy Hoffa.” (Just kidding, everyone knows he’s buried in the Meadowlands!)
Sunflowers, their seeds, oil, and shoots were the second secret ingredient, donated by Farmer Jay. Sunflower heads have been described as tasting close to artichoke hearts, but sweeter with a slight corn flavor. Malatesta and Baker gave the chefs a “freebie” by telling the story of Malatesta’s culinary apprenticeship in Lyon, France, where he frolicked with Paul Bocuse and “compared rotundness” while learning how to make sunflower Barigoule, a classic French preparation for artichokes which works seamlessly for sunflowers. Unfortunately, neither chef was listening to the anecdote.
Rabbit Coffee Roasting Co., located in lovely Riviera Beach, donated the third secret ingredient: their whole beans, ground espresso, and cold brew. They specialize in single origin coffees roasted on the premises and source “micro-lot” coffee beans.
This week boasted the best judges of the entire competition. We were graced by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Liz Balmaseda of the Palm Beach Post, the aforementioned chef Blake Malatesta, chef Jarod Higgins of Cut 432, and David Sabine of Brickhouse Public Relations, which hosts the annual Palm Beach Food and Wine Festival. Some truly heavy hitters.
Jimmy Strine brought his own homemade moonshine to the battle. It was passed around in a jar and everyone partook, eschewing ugly thoughts of social diseases and what-have-you. This is what we’re talking about, people! Community! That’s what it’s all about at Chef vs. Chef.
Strine’s first dish was a gator tail ceviche with a crispy celery root garnish, citrus, cilantro and Aji Amarillo, a Peruvian yellow pepper paste with a good amount of heat. “Celery root is in the chicory family, which is related to coffee,” said Strine. The plate was garnished with sweet-tart pomegranate molasses. David Sabine couldn't believe it was gator meat and Malatesta said that the pomegranate molasses tied it all together. There was a slight dispute over the texture of the gator meat. Some thought it was a bit tough, but Baker dismissed that, saying, “You should be able to feel your meat!” And who could argue with that?
Thomas’ first dish was a sunflower seed and coffee-crusted fried gator tail with sunflower oil aioli. Thomas, now famous for his #friedness, didn’t disappoint. “Anything fried is really good,” said Sabine. Higgins said, “The aioli was balanced beautifully…the sunflower sprouts were delicate. The #friedness was good.” The dish had too much heat for Malatesta to discern the coffee flavors, however.
Strine’s second dish was a nose-to-tail Sunflower, a composed plate of raw goat’s milk ricotta (the goat’s milk from a farm in Ocala), sunflower sprouts tossed in lemon juice and olive oil, grilled sunflower stems, candied sunflower seeds, coffee-dusted onion rings and sunflower petals. Baker called it “perfect hippie food,” and Higgins simply threw his hands up in the air with joy. Balmaseda said, “the ricotta held me in its ARMS.”
Thomas’ second dish was chicken-fried alligator tail with red eye gravy. Classic southern food, well-played by a non-southerner.
Strine’s third dish was breakfast for dinner: Country-fried gator belly Cordon Bleu with burrata, La Quercia prosciutto, and a fried quail egg. “Best bite of the night,” said Sabine.
Thomas then presented a sunflower seed gnocchi with stewed top loin of alligator. Sabine called it the best of JT’s three dishes. Strine’s fourth dish was a coffee and espelette pepper-dusted gator tenderloin tataki with ginger, roasted poblano peppers and a fermented pineapple hot sauce he must’ve snuck into the competition with the ‘shine. Balmaseda said, “The tataki treatment works gorgeously.”
Thomas’ final dish was braised gator legs and ribs with a sunflower/chocolate/coffee mole. “The mole was absolutely awesome,” said Malatesta. “Victor Meneses (El Camino executive chef and weeks 3 and 13 and competitor), I love you, but that effin mole was out of this effin world!” said Jarod Higgins.
Strine took the final win of the fifteen-week competition. Aaron Michaels of Culinary Convenience presented him with a beautiful Misono Swedish carbon steel slicing knife as the grand prize. Strine, the self-professed proponent of the all-purpose, serrated "ghetto knife” accepted the beautifully functional work of art gladly.
Sadly, Chef vs. Chef has come to an end. But we’re all better for partaking in it. Eric Baker summed it up in a speech he gave at the beginning of the night’s battle:
Sadly, about 90 minutes from now, we will have crowned a winner, labeled a loser, and put to bed a summer that will go down for the ages. I was up very late last night going through previous week’s photos, New Times write-ups, past ingredient lists, and various correspondences with participating chefs and numerous spectators. I then asked myself a somewhat convoluted set of questions.
Was Chef vs. Chef a success?
Did we get out of this experiment, what we set out to do?
What is it that we actually set out to accomplish?
And did we get out of this what we potentially could have after realizing its true potential?
I recognize along the way the peanut gallery has had plenty of criticism and ample praise for our team here at Max’s harvest and that is to be expected, especially when one thrusts oneself into the forefront of a community. We took a chance — a risk — as a restaurant, along with the participating chefs, all of whom I applaud. You have put your names and reputations, as well as those of the restaurants you represent, on the line. Week after week, win or lose, rain or shine, you have been here supporting the very thing that wakes us up in the morning; the creative process, that force that drives us as chefs with raw energy and emotion to create and to a be part of something special, something greater than ourselves. We all have seized an opportunity to bridge a gap within our local restaurant industry; forming new bonds, lifelong friendships.
I’m not quite sure I was able to answer any of the questions I asked myself last night and to be quite honest, as with the creative process, one usually never arrives at the same destination they had previously envisioned. And not unlike Chef vs. Chef, it hasn’t turned out the way we anticipated, instead something greater than we could have ever imagined. Or as with the chefs in the competition, their initial game plans each week always seem to morph and transform into something more real, something tangible that we can all take with us. And we all have had the opportunity to take this in, first hand. I’d like to thank all of you for your continued support and constant demand for the best, because it pushes us all to be better each day. And thank you to all our supporters because the creative process as well as this event would be nothing without you. Just as we have put to sleep this summer, we will awaken the beast next summer with a new crop ready to take Chef vs. Chef wherever it may go.
Special thanks to Honey Ackermann, Fred Stampone, Pete Stampone, Eric Baker, Kelly Coulson, DJ Len and DJ Bryan, Dennis Max, Farmer Jay, Jan Costa and all of the generous vendors throughout the weeks, the talented competitors, and the judges.