This week, two French-trained chefs went head-to-head. Victor “El Diablo” Meneses, onetime student of Michel Richard, faced up against Jimmy Strine, a pupil of Daniel Boulud. Their collective technical skill made for a great battle.
Meneses slinked out to “Goodbye Horses” by Q. Lazzarus. Don’t recognize that little ditty? Well, it’s just about the creepiest song ever, made famous by serial killer Buffalo Bill in the Silence of the Lambs. “And, ladies, he’s newly single,” reassured chef Eric Baker.
The judging panel boasted two chefs: Patrick Broadhead from Max’s Grille and Adam Brown of The Cooper. Adam Rutledge of VineCraft provided the “diner’s perspective” and a well-developed palate.
Whole ducks were provided by Jan Costa of the Florida Fresh Meat Co. (He’s the butcher from Queens who says “sommorradat!”) These ducks are American Pekin, or Long Island (not to be confused with Peking) duck, and weigh about 5 lbs each. Pekin ducks are very intelligent and make great pets, able to connect and make strong bonds with humans. Yet, like pigs, they taste great. Sorry, little duckies.
The second secret ingredient was Seminole pumpkin from Green Cay Farm. It’s known as the wild squash of the everglades. The pumpkins were grown by Nancy Roe, the “unassuming” lady who called out Eric Grutka in week 11 for “scaly lionfish.”
Its Miccosukee name is “chassa howitska” meaning “hanging pumpkin,” as the Seminole and the Miccosukee people would plant the pumpkin seeds at the base of trees, so that the pumpkin vines would grow up the trunk, and the pumpkin fruit would grow to be hanging from the bare limbs. It was under cultivation by Seminole people before Spaniards arrived in Florida in the 1500s. Immigrants to Florida also adopted this cultivation method, making it a staple of “Florida cracker cuisine," at home with such dishes as “cooter,” “corn pone,” chitterlings, and “croker sack.”
Fresh whole calamari—and their black, glossy ink—were provided by Foods in Season based in Washougal, Washington. Unlike the cleaned tubes and tentacles we’re all used to, these things, like the ducks, have “beaks” made of tough cartilage that need to be removed. Chef Meneses wasted no time ripping the beaks out as soon as the clock started. Both chefs know their butchery, slicing the legs and thighs off the ducks, then the breasts, cleaning off the silverskin, and scoring the fat. Strine got carried away and started searing his duck in a pan well before the fifteen minute “brainstorming” mark was up. So did Meneses. Chef Baker quickly chastised the chefs, saying “No fire! Follow the rules!” But, as everyone knows, there ARE no rules at Chef vs. Chef. Baker makes ‘em, and he can break ‘em. And he does…often.
Strine’s first dish was “offal on a skewer.” Or, duck anticucho. Or, barbecued duck hearts on a stick. Anticuchos (Quechua for “stew meat”) are popular and inexpensive dishes that originated in Peru in the pre-Columbian era and popular today as street foods. While anticuchos can be made of any type of meat, the most popular are made of beef heart. Chef Broadhead said, “Bangin!’’
Strine’s “warm marinated squid” with cinnamon pumpkin, nuac cham (fermented fish sauce) and aji panca (Peruvian red pepper paste) intrigued the judges. “The aji and nuac cham actually work well together,” said Baker. Brown said, “the flavors are great, but I want more pumpkin.” Broadhead said: “ the texture of the squid was tender—a little bit astringent—but the sweetness balanced it.” Rutledge said, “the squash could have been used more.” In a nutshell, everyone wanted more pumpkin.
Meneses’ dish of confit squid stuffed with duck and pork rinds was a miss. Flavored with lemon juice and balsamic glaze, it still fell a bit flat. Rutledge said, “The squid was perfectly tender, but it needed more acidity and “pop.”
Strine countered with a roasted duck breast with pumpkin puree and peach sauce spiked with rosemary. Apparently, the duck breast was a bit chewy, but chef Baker blamed it on the meat purveyor, Jan Costa, accusing him of terrorizing the duck before it died. However, the judges felt that the duck and pumpkin went together very well.
Meneses channeled his northern Italian training in Washington DC with a squid ink risotto (dish #2) with grilled tentacles. “Doing risotto in this amount of time is ambitious, but he executed it really well,” said Broadhead. An argument about the meaning of “al dente”, meaning “to the tooth”) ensued, the Italians in the crowd insisting that chewier is better when it comes to risotto. (The gesture for Italian-American indignation is made when one touches every digit together in an upward-facing teardrop shape and shakes it in someone's face.)
Another dish from Meneses (#3) was “nut and squash soup” in the style of a Mexican mole, refried in duck fat. A seared duck breast rested on top, garnished with duck jus perked up with cider vinegar. Chef Broadhead liked the “Romesco-like texture.” It may have been the most well-liked dish of the night. Adam Brown said, “I might have to steal this dish.”
Strine’s fourth dish was pickled squid with pickled pumpkin, avocado puree and cilantro. This was the most attractive dish of the night. Broadhead thought it had too much acidity: “A little heat would do this dish wonders,” he said.
Strine’s take on “fra diavolo,”which means “of the devil,” was his fifth and final dish, but it didn’t go over well with the judges. After Meneses’ stuffed squid, it was the second least-liked dish of the night (to Brown and Broadhead). Rutledge disagreed: “This is summer meets fall in the south of France,” he said.
After a lengthy deliberation, Baker and the judges chose Strine as the night’s winner, but gave both chefs kudos: “I’ve not been more impressed with any other chefs in this event,” he said.
Tune in next week to see John Thomas of Tryst face off against Chris Miracolo of S3.
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Chef vs. Chef will be held Wednesday nights at 9:30 at Max’s Harvest from June 17 through September 23. Admission is $10. Max's Harvest is located at 169 NE Second Ave., Delray Beach. $10 entry fee benefits the Naoma Donnelley Haggin Boys and Girls Club and gets you one complimentary libation. Visit the Facebook event page.