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The Chef’s Challenge 2018

May 29, 2018

Judging food events is always an educational experience. If you’ve never had the chance to do any structured food comparisons, or even if you have, remember the next Tour de Buffalo Wing is on Saturday. You are cordially invited. All of the information can be found here.

Attending food events can be equally illuminating.

Last Thursday, the Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Capital Region invited me and a guest to their annual fundraiser, The Chef’s Challenge. The Barefoot Aya was kind enough to accompany me around the room at Excelsior Springs, tasting the food, drink, and dessert offerings.

Maybe one of these days, I’ll be invited to be an official judge of this event. This year all three seats were auctioned off as part of the fundraiser. The way the contest works is that two chefs battle it out, cooking a three course meal in the middle of a banquet hall, with one mystery ingredient that has to find its way into all three dishes. This year, that ingredient was ricotta.

Returning champion Thomas Gulbrandsen from Excelsior Springs was going up against Krista Espinal from Malcolm’s in Schenectady. Amazingly, the official judges were at a near deadlock, and the contest was decided by a one point difference in the entree course.

But who won or lost wasn’t the big learning of the night. Here was my big takeaway:

No matter how much I try to stay current on what’s happening about food and beverage in the Capital Region, no matter how many Yelp reviews I scan, no matter how many people and local businesses I follow on social media, no matter how many friends I have in the business, or how many stories I read in the paper… something is going to fall through the cracks.

While this epic battle of two chefs was going on in the center of the room, around the perimeter were tables set up by other local restaurants, providing samples of food and cocktails. Each of these businesses were vying for a spot in the center of the room for next year’s cookoff.

Guests were given a bunch of tickets to use as votes, and the crowd favorite would be crowned the winner. I say crowd favorite, because I have some issues with the verdicts.

Suburban Kitchen was entirely off my radar, but it’s a private chef operation that will come to your house and bring some serious culinary chops to your next dinner party. I say that based on the playful, delicious, and innovative bite they prepared for the event. It was a shrimp and lobster corn dog, set atop a buttered popcorn reduction, and drizzled with lemon emulsion. You’ve got to see this. It was one of my favorites.

My other favorite came from Malcolm’s. The restaurant closed down for the evening to come out in support of executive chef Krista Espinal, who was competing in the center of the room. And the scallop crudo they were serving was spectacular. The chef who was preparing that, whose name I did not get, worked under Greg Kern at Peck’s Arcade. And Nate Germain made the gutsy call of pairing it with an orange wine. I loved the clever use of underripe strawberries and chard stems in this bite.

More than anything else, this nailed down my desire to get into Malcolm’s stat. They are doing great things, and I must eat more of what they are putting together.

So with these great dishes being jilted by the crowd, the winner must have been something truly innovative and spectacular, right?

It was more like delicious and comforting. Harvey’s took the prize with its braised short rib served over roasted potatoes and garlic smothered asparagus, drizzled with a beef demi-glace and roasted garlic and herb aioli.

Someone suggested that perhaps this meat and potatoes dish won because it was the only competitor that was doing something besides seafood. And that might be the case. It certainly wasn’t elegant, but it was indeed very well prepared.

What I was surprised to learn though was that Harvey’s relatively new co-owner Matt Bagley is bringing some serious cocktail passion to what I would have otherwise just written off as an Irish tavern in Saratoga Springs. Not only did he squeeze 150 lemons to prepare the drink sample for the contest, but he also brought Amaro Averna. His drink was called The Walkabout and featured Bulleit bourbon, amaro, fresh lemon, simple syrup, and bitters. It was right up my alley, and my favorite of the night.

Yet, it too, got shafted by the crowd. They chose a white sangria from Fish at 30 Lake. I have some thoughts on white sangria, but we’ll save those for later.

Thankfully, the people got something right in awarding Upstate Distilling Company the second of two awards for best drink. They made a lovely little number out of their locally made bourbon and a mango infused honey from Saratoga Tea & Honey.

Even better, the small local distillery has updated its packaging design and logo. The new bottle looks wonderful.

And there was more, but I’ll spare you every last detail.

In the end chef Gulbrandsen triumphed in the head-to-head battle, but even still I think Krista Espinal is the big winner. She gets to work at Malcolm’s and drive a kitchen that grows their own herbs, makes their own ice cream, and completely shuts down to support this night to raise money and awareness for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Capital Region. Getting to watch her work was a real treat, and for what I saw of the two competing dessert courses, it wasn’t even close. Espinal would have had my vote. But we’ve seen how far that goes with the crowd.

The dessert of the winning chef was the deconstructed cannoli on the bottom left.

Some food writers might find that discouraging, but it just means I have more work to do.
That could be a learning as well, but this is something I already knew.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Doug permalink
    May 29, 2018 11:01 am

    The Walkabout sounds like my kind of cocktail, and I even have the Averno on hand. Do you have an idea of what bitters he was using?

    • May 29, 2018 11:06 am

      Right? It’s an aromatic sour. The best of two different cocktail pillars. It also contained both angostura and orange bitters. #classic

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