Were you at the Mall of America last weekend? I was. For about 18 hours, eating everything from yogurt-pretzel-stuffed fluke to Oreo-sauced goose breast. At the end of the day, my fellow judges and I—Cheryl Tiegs (the real, the one, the only), Jason DeRusha, also the one and only, but of WCCO TV, and Jason Ross, bona fide chef and instructor at the Cordon Bleu—handed over a $10,000 check to the winner Vincent Francoual of Vincent – A Restaurant, and a $1,000 check to second-place winner J.D. Fratzke of the Strip Club and the Inn. We also awarded a $100 gift certificate to someone in the audience who tweeted using our #chefchallenge hashtag, and a $75 gift certificate to Crave to whomever found it when it fell out of Jason DeRusha’s pocket. Hey, we’re only human. We also had a bomb scare, and, even though the event was free through the wonderful support of our sponsors—including Groupon, Cambria, Best Buy, the Mall of America, and Lakewinds and Valley Natural Foods. But I’ve gotten a lot of requests for the real, unvarnished, behind-the-scenes taste-by-taste of what went on. Of course human perspective being what it is, I can only give you one judge’s best take on what went down, but here it is.
First, the rules. There was a secret basket of four ingredients that formed the material for each bout. Chefs were given the closed baskets and then opened them to find their four secret ingredients, typically one of which was a major protein and one of which was patently absurd. They then had 45 minutes to cook four of the same plates of food for the judges. When the 45 minutes ran out, there were an additional five minutes to plate. No one ever ran out of time, and more typically, we ended the bout two or three minutes early because the chefs were done and were standing there looking at us like, now what?
Now, the bouts. Vincent Francoual of Vincent – A Restaurant started things off battling Judi Barsness of Chez Jude in Grand Marais. The secret ingredients were pine nuts, fresh artichokes, diver caught scallops, and kim-chi. This was the easiest of all the battles to judge, because Chef Barsness unfortunately forgot to put her toasted pine nuts on the plate, so she was essentially disqualified.
Next (what this judge remembers as the most difficult of all the bouts to judge) was Erik Andersen of Sea Change versus Mike DeCamp of La Belle Vie. This was the inside-the-Tim-McKee-empire battle, and the secret ingredients were fennel, jalapenos, baby octopus, and banana chips. I thought the banana chips would be a major conundrum, but these two top chefs blazed through them as if they were just a regular old part of their cuisine. DeCamp used his in an aioli, and Andersen ground his up for a breading on the outside of the baby octopus. The two chefs went in entirely different directions. Andersen deep-fried his banana-breaded octopus, and decided to play his dish in the key of maple-and-bacon. (It was a bit like the signature grilled octopus on the menu at Sea Change.) Meanwhile, DeCamp went in a “delicate and gracefully composed individual morsels on a plate” direction, with the morsels united by the banana chip aioli. Personally, I thought Andersen’s dish was both delicious and inspired in the way it brought front-and-center the banana chip flavor—but the other judges all strongly preferred DeCamp’s and more so thought Andersen’s was flawed in that the octopus was greasy. Perils of cooking on an unfamiliar stove!
The next bout of the day was J.D. Fratzke of The Strip Club versus Kevin Kathman of Café Barbette and many, many other upcoming restaurants—including Bread & Pickle at the Lake Harriet bandshell. The secret ingredients were fluke, watermelon radishes, grapefruit, and yogurt-covered pretzels. You know, yogurt-covered pretzels, those things from the co-op that were thought to be healthy some time back in the 1970’s? Like carob? Well, anyhoo, the two chefs went in radically different directions: Fratzke made a roast roulade of fluke filled with a yogurt pretzel stuffing (and further topped it with non-roast yogurt pretzels) and served with a radish and grapefruit-braised matchstick-cut side. Believe it or not, it was quite good. Kathman made a raw dish, a sort of fluke crudo dressed with watermelon radishes, lots of fresh herbs, segmented grapefruit, jalapeno oil, a made-on-the-spot soy sauce substitute fashioned from mushrooms, and fried garlic, and he used finely chopped yogurt pretzels as the salt for the dish. Again the other judges and I parted in opinion; I thought the dish was good, but the other judges felt there wasn’t much cooking going on, that the garlic was burnt, and that the miniscule amount of yogurt pretzel in the final dish should have essentially disqualified it. Then we had the bomb scare! A guy, visibly off, had been milling around. He put down a large shopping bag in the middle of the audience and staggered off. Security then grabbed Cheryl Tiegs like a magician making a bouquet of flowers disappear. One second she was eating fluke with us, the next she vanished! Then twenty seconds later a large young man tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Come this way right now!” Bomb-sniffing dogs were brought in. They determined that the bag, which read American Girl Doll, held two American Girl Dolls, new in the boxes. Did I mention we were about fifty feet from the American Girl Doll store? I don’t actually know anything, but from what I saw, my suspicions run to custody battles…but, victory Fratzke!
The final bout of day one was between Scott Graden of the New Scenic Café and Jack Riebel, last year’s winner and chef of the Dakota. Secret ingredients were Barramundi (a white fleshed fish), broccoli, green and black olives, and orange gummi bunnies. Graden made perfectly fried fish fillets and a delicious accompaniment of bacon-amplified broccoli, but Riebel knocked it out of the park with a spicy barramundi with a cooked olive-roast broccoli thing and a gummi-bunny ginger gastrique. In retrospect, this dish was the highlight of the Chef Challenge in terms of taking the absurd ingredient and actually making it freaking delicious! Jack Riebel claimed his victory.
The next day started off with two rounds of semi-finals, which in retrospect, were the most fiercely fraught and fought of the whole competition. Vincent Francoual (Vincent) and Mike DeCamp (La Belle Vie) were given quail eggs, goose breast, jicama, and Oreo-like crème-filled chocolate sandwich cookies. Vincent went with a gamey, rare-seared goose breast dusted with ground cookie exteriors paired with quail eggs two ways (in a jicama sauce and poached) with two sauces—a sweet sauce made of cookie cream interior, and a red-wine reduction. DeCamp went with a medium-cooked, nicely crispy goose breast, also with cookie-crust on the skin, quail eggs in a lovely sauce gribiche, and a very fine dusting of cookie dust over the top. We judges nearly broke into a fist-fight deciding between the two. Why? We couldn’t actually taste any sandwich cookie in DeCamp’s dish, and the cookie was much more vividly used, to good effect, in Vincent’s dish; Vincent had the good idea of using the cookie cream almost like a vanilla jelly to the rare meat, and you could well taste the cookie crumbs on his goose breast. But, his goose breast was perhaps underdone, and the vanilla-cream sauce was more on the order of, “Hey, this kind of works!” Not, “Whoa, we need more of this on planet earth.” With that, DeCamp’s dish was more delicious: The goose skin was crispier, the meat more tender, the entire dish yummier, and by far the one you’d like to have again. So, were we there to reward the better dish, or the dish that more wonderfully showed cooking ability through this prism of wacky ingredients? By the score-sheet, one quarter of the dish’s final score was supposed to be use of the secret ingredients, yet all the judges had always said you could not win this contest by waving the wacky ingredients over the plate at the end, like the vermouth bottle legendarily waved over the driest martinis. In retrospect, this Oreo question turned into the critical play of the game, and the entire $10,000 prize actually came down to this issue of whether you could taste DeCamp’s use of Oreo-like cookies. Is that ridiculous? Yes, but when the game is Candy Land, you can’t win by being the best football player. If you disagree, tell me in the comments. I’ m very interested. In any event, the first semi-final round went to Vincent!
The second semi-final round had some similar elements to the first semi-final. The chefs were J.D. Fratzke of the Strip Club and Jack Riebel of the Dakota. (This was actually a reprise of last year’s final round, when Riebel won and Fratzke came in second.) The secret ingredients: Bison sirloin, ginger snaps, beets, and blue cheese. Riebel used ginger snaps in a crust for a bison cutlet, and made a sauce with ginger snaps. He served the cutlet on a bed of blue cheese and jalapeno polenta with beets and beet greens, and called the dish chicken-fried bison and blue cheese grits. Fratzke did a wilder preparation, with rare bison also ginger snap crusted, beet greens, beets, and a vegetable fritter made with blue cheese. The judging on this one was also raucous, as the dishes were so different. Fratzke’s was wild and gamey, the bison very, very rare, and the earthy beets, the pungent vegetable fritter, and the ginger-snap sauce uniting them like the sauce of a sauerbraten uniting that dish, but here the ginger acting as a corral to flavors of earth, game, and funk, not sourness. Riebel’s was much more of a complete restaurant dish, the bison remarkably tender and nicely done, and the polenta was just the right texture—but it seemed like a perfect restaurant dish someone had accidentally spilled blue cheese on, and we couldn’t taste the ginger snaps. If either of those things had gone the other way—if the ginger snaps had been foregrounded or the blue cheese had been worked in another way—I think the competition would have gone to Riebel.
I know this post will be microscopically read by the chefs who competed this year, and then by next year’s competitors, and I say to all of them: The one thing I can tell you is don’t lose track of the secret ingredients. This is not just a cooking contest, it’s a cooking contest using amusing secret ingredients. What does it prove to cook using amusing secret ingredients? It shows you can cook something yummy when no one else could, and that you’re clever as well as a great technician. It shows you can win this game.
Finally, the Vincent Francoual versus J.D. Fratzke championship match! This last course took a new turn: Dessert. The two savory chefs had to make dessert! We unveiled the secret ingredients of kumquats, mascarpone cheese, pistachios, and chow mein noodles. Vincent went in a classical fine dining direction and created four tiny desserts for each plate: Chocolate dipped chow mein noodles (like the classic church-basement dessert of haystacks, but in singular form), a pistachio mascarpone concoction, a sort of spontaneous kumquat marmalade served on dark chocolate chow mein noodle tangle, and pistachio brittle. I hadn’t remembered that Fratzke spent two years with Vincent as his chef at un deux trois, and in tribute, Fratzke seemed to have fallen on his sword. He made an unimpressive dish—a dark chocolate chow mein noodle haystack crusted on the bottom (soled?) with pistachios and topped with mascarpone-blue-cheese-cayenne cream and sauced with something kumquat and blood orange. In your mouth it was hot, truly hot, but also stinky, and distasteful. Also unnecessary, because in this one instance no one had required these particular wacky ingredients. All us judges tried Vincent’s first, and we immediately zeroed in on the flaws (the dark chocolate chow mein noodles, for instance, were not delicious). But as soon as we tried Fratzke’s, reactions went like this: “When it’s okay versus horrible, okay wins!” I’ve had lots of J.D. Fratzke’s food over the years, and this was utterly atypical. Was it freezing under pressure? Was it one critical mistake that snowballed? Or was it falling on his sword to preserve the honor of his former chef? Who knows, but Vincent Francoual won it all. He walked away with ten thousand dollars and the envy and admiration of all his peers. In retrospect, he did two things right above all else: He was technically unflappable, and he showcased the secret ingredients with flair.
Now, the feedback: What should we do differently next year? Besides amping up the video coverage so you can see what’s in the pans. One thought we’re floating around internally: Exchange the wacky grocery store ingredients (yogurt-covered pretzels!) for exotic ingredients (dried pomegranate seeds!). But would we then lose some of the down-home charm? In any event, millions of thanks to everyone who came down. What a weekend it was!