Chef Challenge B-I-N-G-O!

Word on the street is that our 2013 Local Chef Challenge Champion Donald Gonzalez woke up with a smile today—and is likely recovering from a night of celebration! So are our TC Taste bloggers and Challenge judges Rachel Hutton, Jason DeRusha, Jason Ross, and Stephanie Meyer, who emceed all weekend and had the stressful, tough task of advancing one delicious dish over the next each round. Instead of the usual recap, here’s the weekend in a nutshellor a couple bingo cards of potential observations—from a super spectator.

It was an inspiring sight to see. Half the Mall of America rotunda and the three levels above erupted when the winner of the Local Chef Challenge, who was first announced as the perceived underdog, was named: Donald Gonzalez of St. Paul’s Forepaugh’s! It was another year of fierce competition, lively commentary, and a crowd of onlookers stacked with a who’s-who of the local restaurant scene.

Sadly, we can’t all go home to an enormous check for 10 grand. Instead, we have some very lovely parting giftsincluding some play-along Bingo spectator sheets and many memories (bolded) that followed suit.



The elderly get handsy with DeRusha

Losing chef pouts

Induction burners baffle contestants

Awkward Instagram selfie with chefs

Sameh Wadi wears jaunty hat

Stephanie Meyer meets pork belly

Chef takes a shot of something (coffee counts)

Orange Julius slurping men waiting while wives shop American Girl store, oblivious to competition

World charmed by the adorableness of Birchwood’s daughters

Nick O’Leary wears jaunty patchwork apron

Extraneous chef sighting

JD Fratzke smiles

Judges give fastest directions to the bathrooms

Mall cops watching the event

Food tattoo spotted

Doug Flicker smiles

Someone asks who Mariel Hemingway is

Mall tourists moving in herds, not unlike cattle

Annoyed wife spotted

Judges suspiciously racing back to table between heats

Minnesota Monthly magazine staff clutching Starbucks cups

Superfluous bacon

Something burns

Dropped pot

Le Cordon Bleu student sighting


  • Moments after handing Jason DeRusha his Bingo card, several lovely women called out to him and there was some affectionate arm rubbing. While they may not have technically been elderly, they clearly could have gotten the early bird dinner discount.
  • Superfluous bacon should probably have been placed in the “free” space.
  • The extraneous chef sighted was last year’s semi-finalist, Jack Riebel of Butcher and the Boar (who also took advantage of superfluous bacon in his dessert napoleon last year). The James Beard award nominated chef watched from the sidelines as his friends competed, clearly itching to get back in the competition next year.
  • Last year’s winner, Chef Doug Flicker of Piccolo, was watching early heats from a bird’s eye view. His laser-like focus never left the competition. He only smiled once because the author of this article started waving maniacally in what is described on the playground as “spaz” behavior before the heat began. It worked, though. (Doug Flicker might be a closet Three Stooges fan.)
  • Two-time finalist Chef JD Fratzke of the Strip Club was also intense as he faced the battle. What some may not know about this fierce competitor, with his grandmother’s knife tattooed on his forearm, is that he’s kind of a softie. Every so often he would look up, catch a friend’s eye, and break into a momentarily dazzling grin. Just as quickly, it would vanish.
  • It was impossible not to be charmed by the little girls from Birchwood Café. Owner Tracy Singleton’s impish blonde preschooler cooed at Chef Marshall Paulsen’s baby girl. It was also very sweet to see the baby was busily teething on an orange plastic measuring cup.
  • Not only did stylish Chef Sameh Wadi of Saffron and World Street Kitchen rock a fedora, he was very nearly convinced to take advantage of the Mall of America’s offer of assistance with hair and makeup.



Morels with a side of morels

Sauce swirling

Someone explains what a One Direction is

DeRusha in the closet with the corkscrew

Mall guests wearing Sons of Anarchy gear

Sameh Wadi wears a jaunty hat

Excessive offal

Tim Niver works the charm on the ladies

Annoyed wife spotted

Le Cordon Bleu student sighting


Superfluous bacon

Knife roll in color other than black

Jason Ross matches socks to shirt

Creative facial hair spotted

Sarah Master includes New Orleans flavors

Donald Gonzalez presents a plate like a painted road map

Mall tourists moving in herds, not unlike cattle

Chef uses 1/2 dozen different spoons for one dish

Judges suspiciously racing back to table between heats

Build-A-Bear animals as observer

Extraneous chef sighting

Fresh Tart Steph tagged as Steph March

Dropped pot

Little kid screaming the final countdown numbers incorrectly


  • There was one pantry ingredient that got all of the chefs excited and that was the morels, a harbinger of spring. As the weather continues to taunt us with snow, there is promise that soon spring ingredients will be popping up on area menus.
  • Chef Sameh Wadi lost on day one by way of a coin-toss. He and former colleague and good friend Nick O’Leary of Borough committed some chef shenanigans by refusing to cook two separate dishes. Instead, they worked together and created one dish for the judges. He arrived the second day to cheer on his friend and this time wore a white knit number atop his curly ‘do.
  • Champion Chef Donald Gonzalez is talented in the art of presentation. His final dish was a sea of lime curd, studded with carefully selected blueberries, purposely placed leaves of mint with an island of avocados. It was almost too pretty to eat, but the judges managed to do just that.
  • Tim Niver, owner of the Strip Club Meat and Fish is known for his hospitality and charm. On this day, he was lavishing his attention on his favorite ladies, his family.
  • Chefs love their spoons and aren’t afraid to use about thirty of them.
  • While Jason DeRusha (who it turns out is a bit of a clothes horse) matches his tie to his shirt to his eyes to his socks, we were just happy that Jason Ross remembered to wear socks. So, we decided to just give that point to him.
  • As each heat draws to a close, Jason Ross or Jason DeRusha found a willing young attendee to help them count down the final moments. DeRusha’s young boys teamed with Chef JD Fratzke’s girls to bring the competition to a close.

As the dust settled, there was no pouting, no swearing, and no hard feelings. Instead the chefs, judges, and attendees gathered together for a series of embraces before heading off into the Mall of America to enjoy the rest of their day together. We’ll see you all next year!