5/06/2013 03:00:00 PM

Photos: Chicago Reader Hosts the Most Peculiar Cook-Off

Savory durian panna cotta from Longman & Eagle
Savory durian panna cotta with Serrano gel, anise hyssop, pickled rhubarb and Bangladesh almond - it sounded like something out of an episode of Fear Factor. As part of Chicago Reader’s Key Ingredient Cook-Off, we not only sampled that creation, but 25 other dishes that used five different “challenge” ingredients, and one that used all five. Luckily nothing tasted nearly as bad as it sounded.

In order to partake in Saturday night’s cook-off, a chef must have been featured in Reader’s “Key Ingredient Challenge” - a series in which one chef challenges the next to cook with a seemingly impossible ingredient. The unappetizing ingredients (celery, millet, dried shrimp, durian and Jeppson's Malört) were served on the fourth floor of the Bridgeport Art Center with picturesque views of Chicago. Each chef only needed to use one of the five, but the ambitious Abraham Conlon of Fat Rice used all of them by via durian epoisses with dried shrimp and Malört rind, celery grape salad and millet bread.

While every chef gets brownie points for taking on the challenge, Matt Toost of Three Aces earned extra for producing an edible version of “Malört face.” The term used to describe the expression one makes after taking a shot of the bitter liquor was embodied in Malört-braised pig face with Malört mustard, fennel salad and Malört-ramp vinaigrette. Another dish that stole the show was chef Phillip Foss (EL ideas) on-site assembly of dehydrated shrimp cocktail.

Other standout dishes included “Coda alla Vaccinara” from Rob Levitt of The Butcher & Larder, or Barry Sorkin of Smoque 's smoked leg of lamb with a Malört-blueberry BBQ sauce and Malört-pickled onions. Dale Levitski represented Frog n Snail and Sprout with a millet cake with strawberry, rhubarb and foie gras topping.

By the end of the evening the entire venue smelled like rancid socks and rotten eggs thanks to Ryan Laroche of NoMI Kitchen, who used a sliced durian as decoration on his table. The dish he made was durian crème brûlée with coconut lime cream. We washed the evening down with a celery soda float from Sandra Holl of Floriole and a few cocktails from Scofflaw before fleeing the smell and returning to the land of familiar foods.

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