In this second-to-last Chef vs. Chef battle, Chris Miracolo from S3 (winner of weeks 8 and 12) faced off against John Thomas of Tryst (winner of weeks 5 and 11).
Judges were Bob Higginbotham, GM at Max’s Social House in Delray and host of the upcoming booze-a-thon Bar Brawls; Neiman Marcus Boca Raton executive chef Ben Burger (week 1), and chef Eric Grutka (weeks 6 and 11) of Ian’s Tropical Grill in Stuart.
The first secret ingredient came with a little-known kernel of knowledge from chef Eric Baker: Wild rice is not actually rice at all—it’s an aquatic grass. Originally cultivated by Native Americans, it’s the state grain of Minnesota, which produces most of the world’s wild rice. Another water-loving member of the grass family—and secret ingredient #2—was lemongrass, donated by Farmer Jay. Also known as cymbopogon, lemongrass has a strong citrus flavor. The plant can grow up to six feet, but the most flavorful portion is the lighter-colored root end. It’s widely used in Asian cuisine in curries and teas, and supposedly has medicinal properties.
Wild rice and lemongrass. Pretty tame secret ingredients considering the history of this competition so far. Well, the third ingredient made up for that: Hideous, bloody severed lamb’s heads (tongues lolling grotesquely) and accompanying “offal” (brains, livers, kidneys, hearts and lungs) were procured by Jan Costa of the Florida Fresh Meat Co. Oh! And a jar of blood, too. The sight elicited an “oh shit” moment from chefs, judges and onlookers. Quick, someone call Chris Cosentino!
Pressure cookers were on standby for the lamb’s heads and also for the wild rice, which usually takes about 45 minutes to cook.
Lamb’s heads have been featured on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. Bourdain visited April Bloomfield (one of the most famous proponents of nose-to-tail dining )at The Spotted Pig and ate capozelle, Italian for roasted lamb’s head. Sadly, there was no whole roasted lamb’s head — with finger-licking bits of head meat to be sucked out of crevices — in this battle. Nor were there any “blood shots” taken, as was promised. (Hey, we had the uni shot in week 7, why not the blood shot?)
Thomas’ first dish was a lamb heart tartare with truffle oil, crushed green peppercorns and a raw quail egg. Grutka complimented Thomas on his skillful and even knife cuts, a must for a good tartare. “A crispy component would have been awesome,” said Burger.
Thomas’ second dish was a lamb liver pâté with a grain (or was that brain?) mustard/wasabi shmear on a crostini. The pâté, which was more like a mousse, was a bit too warm for the judges’ liking.
“It would have worked better as a third or fourth course to give it time to set up and cool down,” said Grutka.
The pâté had an interesting Asian flavor profile, which was unexpected yet pleasant. Judge chef Blake Malatesta (week 8) was lucky enough to get a plate, and said he didn’t mind the temperature of the mousse at all, but the texture could have benefitted from a pass through a chinois (a fine mesh sieve).
Miracolo’s first dish was a lamb heart ceviche with lemongrass vinaigrette, sriracha, and panko-fried okra. Baker said it was “well worth the wait,” the only drawback being that “that amazing vinaigrette overpowered the lamb a bit.” Grutka disliked the term “ceviche” for this dish, because of the temperature. “I’ve never had a warm ceviche,” he said. Higginbotham agreed: “the citrus cut through really well, but it was a bit odd that it was warm.”
Thomas’ third dish was a fritto misto of lamb livers and okra with a sriracha honey aioli that worked like a tartar sauce. All of the judges enjoyed it, proving the axiom, "When in doubt, deep-fry it and serve it with a dank-ass dipping sauce." A follow-up was a lamb's brain and cauliflower gratin.
Miracolo’s second dish was a three-fold. A puree of carrot, liver and kidney in a 70’s era hue somewhere between avocado green and harvest gold dressed the plate, topped with a batter-fried chunk of lamb brains and a dollop of liver butter. The plate was garnished with a little salad dressed in truffle oil. He followed that up with a wild rice “risotto” with lamb’s blood, lemongrass/poached garlic emulsion and sweet corn.
Thomas’ final dish was a “shout out to Jimmy Strine from last week,” a lamb’s heart anticucho (grilled offal on a stick) on top of wild rice and lamb kidney and lungs stewed in a tomato/garam masala/curry sauce. Baker chastised Burger for using a fork for the curry: “This is a masala. In India they use their hands, so use your f—kin’ hands!” Burger obliged, and soon Grutka followed suit, reaching across the table to lovingly hand-feed chef "Wild Bill" Estes (week 4 and week 10). Those crazy kids.
In the end, John Thomas consistently brought it, sending him on to the final battle next week against Jimmy Strine of Cafe Boulud. May the best chef win!
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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.