|Foreign and Domestic's Gary Lester plating his entree|
Pastry chef Philip Speer masterminded the idea back in 2008, with an internal contest at Uchi among front-of-house and back-of-house, but no chefs. “We wanted to make it about the restaurant community as a whole and give the people who are running the restaurant every day some glory,” Speer said. (Making it even more interesting, all ingredients are donated by Uchi and Uchiko’s food purveyors like U.S. Foods and Minamoto.)
Each year it became bigger and bigger, incorporating Uchiko and Uchi Houston. Then chef Tyson Cole and Speer decided to open it up citywide to up-and-coming cooks from Austin’s best restaurants. Like on Chopped, in each of three rounds (appetizer, entrée, dessert), a contestant is eliminated, until there is just one winner left standing. The ingredients never meld well together, and so the challenge is to make a coherent dish that looks pretty and tastes even better.
On Saturday, as soon as the bags ripped open, the kitchen filled with frenetic energy, shouts of “behind” and “hot” as each of the cooks hustled around the Uchiko kitchen and us annoying bloggers, friends and family huddled in to get a good view.
“You have five and a half minutes. You’d better hurry up!” an Uchiko staff member called over a hilariously obnoxious bullhorn as one of the cooks slammed an unwieldy oven door shut for the fourth time.
The most impressive appetizer belonged to Swift’s Attic’s Casey Keese, who went the traditional route with the bone marrow and hard-cooked salami, pairing it with a fast gremolata with parsley and lemon zest. The judges liked the plating too, with lots of negative space surrounding the intensely colored, chopped dish. We thought Sway’s Chase Gintner’s Panko-crusted and fried sopressata with coconut juice vinaigrette was also interesting, if a little too crispy. Unfortunately Parkside’s Austin Finley was 86’d for his salami and peppers over beer broth.
Then it was on to the entrees, where the remaining three cooks had just over half an hour to work with fermented bean curd, quail, blood-orange vinegar and brightly colored fingerling potatoes. Foreign and Domestic’s Gary Lester won over the judges and the round with his pan-seared quail, plated with potatoes stewed in blood-orange vinegar on top of a bean-curd-and-crème-fraiche puree with fried basil and raw shallot on top (a few of the judges couldn’t stop eating the dish, even though they had two more entrees to go). Keese’s Panko-fried quail with an arugula-and-wasabi salad and Gintner’s cornmeal-fried quail with a puree of bean curd, goat cheese and yogurt both looked beautiful and impressed the judges, but in the end Keese was 86’d due to a lack of seasoning and sauce.
That left just Lester and Gintner for the final dessert round, with opposing ingredients of white chocolate, black oven-baked olives, Jester King pecan saison beer, mandarin oranges and cashews.
Gintner had already injured his hand on the mandolin while slicing fingerling potatoes, and as the 25 minutes for dessert rushed to a close, he finished off his still-scalding cashew brittle by thrusting it into liquid nitrogen, then running it bare-handed back to his workstation: “Jesus, it’s hot and cold at the same time!” he shouted as the clock counted down to the final seconds.
Both desserts looked fabulous and left the judges baffled about which was best. Lester melted the white chocolate, poured liquid nitrogen over it to cool it down, then broke it up into bite-size chunks. He paired the chocolate with a beer caramel on top of roasted cashews and a bottom layer of liquid-nitrogen-frozen olives, with sliced oranges on the side. (The audience remarked that both cooks must be using the nitrogen to impress us, but Speer corrected us later, saying, “It’s a tool to create texture quickly, so you don’t have to freeze or dehydrate ingredients, which takes time. Liquid nitrogen is instantaneous.”)
Gintner made a beer-infused brownie with a white-chocolate center, sided with Dippin’ Dots made out of beer, orange and white chocolate. On top were candied cashews and an olive-and-beer puree.
As the two finalists stood in front of the judges, each judge had something positive to say about their work for the day. “You made a brownie,” Uchiko junior sous chef Sterling Ridings recapped to Gintner. “And brownies are delicious. So is beer, and they tasted like beer.”
In the end, Gintner took home the gold for those brownies, while Lester was 86’d because the beer syrup was overpowered by the white chocolate and the citrus flavors were lacking. But the judges agreed it had been a toss-up, because both cooks are so talented. Indeed, Lester’s last day at Foreign and Domestic was Saturday, as he’s leaving to start an adventure at Mettle, the new restaurant from Bridget Dunlap and former Olivia chef de cuisine Andrew Francesco.
Meanwhile, Gintner is preparing for the final round of 86’d, on June 17, which will be open to the public. Hear that? You’ll be able to crowd around the kitchen with the best of them to see which of the finalists from the previous rounds will win: Josh Hajash of Congress, Brandon Martin from Foreign and Domestic, Joaquin Cebollas of Sway or Chase Gintner of Sway.
You may notice that there aren’t any Uchi or Uchiko cooks on that list. “Since all of the competitions are in our kitchen, we didn’t want to give our people an unfair advantage,” Speer said. But look out, because starting next year, the team plans to host the competition twice a year in an unbiased kitchen, like at a nearby culinary school.
In the meantime, get your kicks on June 17. We know we’ll be there.
Need to get in touch with the Zagat blog in Austin? E-mail Megan Giller at megzagATX at gmail dot com.