As the final countdown to culinary supremacy rages on to a blistering climax, we’re reunited with the victorious chefs from the preliminary battles. Wednesday, “Wild Bill” Estis (week 4 winner) went head-to-head with Victor “El Escorpio” Meneses (Week 3 winner).
This battle was all about the pig. The secret ingredient carrying the most gravitas of the night— the suckling pig—is fed on mother’s milk and slaughtered between two and six weeks of age. It’s a heavy sight to behold. One can’t help but think of infanticide. Those of us who read Charlotte’s Web as kids felt a lump in our throats and a dull pain in our hearts looking at that little piggy. But, averting our eyes and moving on.
Ficus Carica, Latin for the common fig, is a native to the Middle East and western Asia and a member of the mulberry family. Figs were one of the first plants ever cultivated by humans, their fruit favored by the Romans as a snack food and their leaves by the Christians as a sartorial solution for nude heathen statues and artwork. Black mission and Brown Turkey figs—which are well-suited to the humid south Florida climate—were here tonight.
The last secret ingredient of the night was the summer black truffle. Similar to burgundy truffles but less intense in flavor, Tuber aestivum is can be found throughout Europe and is prized for its many culinary applications—shaved over pasta and risotto or added to sauces, vinaigrettes, oils and even salts. French gourmand Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (you know, the guy who came up with the phrase, ‘you are what you eat,’) called truffles “the diamonds of the kitchen.”
“Chef Meneses, what are you gonna do?” Eric Baker, Max’s Harvest executive chef this contest’s emcee, asked. “I’m gonna f—k sh*t up!” Meneses replied.
This was a no-jacket-required kind of night – Estis in a tie-dyed t-shirt (“Is that a Hypercolor shirt?” asked Baker) and Meneses in a Slayer “Hell Awaits” t-shirt and signature cholo bandana.
The judging panel consisted of Laura Huron, 20-year veteran of the Dennis Max restaurant empire; Bronx-born Jan Costa of the Florida Fresh Meat Co.; and proud south Florida local (by way of Staten Island, NY) Joey Giannuzzi of the Farmer’s Table in Boca Raton. Before the competition’s commencement, Costa (who brought the suckling pig) showed Giannuzzi cell phone photos of the array of meats the Florida Fresh Meat Co. has to offer. “Look at my PORK (pronounced ‘pauwk’), he proudly declared.
Cementing her status as a Chef vs. Chef judge, Huron assured the crowd, “I’m like Donald Trump—if it sucks, I’m gonna tell you it sucks!” she said. Fair enough.
This week the pressure cookers came out again, in addition to an electric pasta machine (that turned out to be dead on arrival), requested by chef Meneses, who wasted no time making pasta dough (In a Robot-Coupe, for God’s sake!) as soon as the one-hour time clock started.
It was Estis, unsurprisingly, who presented the first dish—pork ribs resting atop a thick spread of truffle butter— which, one of the judges commented, “could have benefited from a longer cooking time.”
Estis followed up with a less stodgy take on the crock pot classic, “Normandy pork,” which is pork loin in a hard cider sauce (or Calvados, if you’re fancy). “This is REAL good! I’d like to have sommorradat (some more of that)!” said judge Costa.
With 20 minutes left on the clock and the smell of cola barbecued pig in the air, Meneses busted out some legit agnolotti, which looked like soft little pillows with crimped edges. His first dish, called “Figgy Piggy,” was visually arresting, delicate and rich. “I learned it from Michel Richard,” he explained. “This version is agnolotti pasta stuffed with lots of pork product. The sauce is made with roasted pig bones, figs, and truffle.” Baker said, “The guy pulled off a hand-rolled pasta! Best dish!”
A third dish from Estis was a suckling pig thigh stuffed with shallot, parsley, lemon, and apples, garnished with a potato chip “oreo” of sorts (truffle slices sandwiched between two potato chips). A very pretty picture.
Estis’ next dish was osso bucco (from the shank, or leg) with brunoised vegetables over a deep-fried rice cake. The judges mentioned that the shank was cooked perfectly. Go pressure cookers.
Meneses’ second dish was a tongue-in-cheek (only because it included both pig tongue and cheek) pork terrine with perfectly-formed quenelles of fennel tapenade and fig jam and julienned truffle. “The texture is great, but the flavor is a little flat,” Giannuzzi said. “That’s some good technique, Victor,” said Baker. “Well done.”
Estis’ final dish was a pig’s head flatbread on Max’s Harvest’s own naan bread with coca-cola-braised and fried pork, topped with both feta and blue cheeses. “My naan bread is fantastic,” said Baker.
Earlier, we had seen Meneses putting croutons in the oven to toast while he made a crème anglaise out of egg yolks, heavy cream, sugar and vanilla bean. Alas! The black truffle ice cream finally arrived. Since there was no ice cream machine (or Pacojet!) available, the resourceful Meneses simply stuffed his bountiful batch of crème anglaise into a couple of plastic bags, then stuffed those inside plastic bags filled with ice. He then had two eager assistants shake the ever-loving shit out of the bags. That’s how ice cream is made in Victor Meneses’ world. The finalized dessert was bread pudding with black truffle ice cream and caramelized figs. “Out of the box,” said Baker. “Just do a pop-up, Chef!”
Estis’ dessert was “ghetto Alinea,” according to chef Eric Grutka (competing next week). Estis slapped down a piece of parchment paper as a canvas and went all Jackson Pollack on its ass.
At the end of it all, Baker summed it up: “This was the most difficult of any of the rounds [to judge]." Although Estis presented the greater number of dishes in an hour’s time, he said that Meneses’ dishes were “tight and technically-sound,” earning him the win.
Tune in next week for the quarter finals, week 11 of the competition, featuring Chef John Thomas from Tryst and Erik Grutka from Ian’s Tropical Grill.
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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.