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Papi Tino’s Culinary Showdown Leaves One Cook Standing

Week Four Finals Throw Chefs a Curveball

By Gracie Salem, 11:42AM, Fri. Sep. 28, 2012

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Mike Lyons' Winning Dish
Mike Lyons' Winning Dish Mike Lyons' Winning Dish
Mike Lyons' Winning Dish
Photo Gracie Salem

The finals of a month-long competition pitting culinary students against each other reached its end Wednesday night when three locally-stuffed mystery baskets took this feel-good event to another level of fun.

Many local farms and businesses supplied the goods for the mystery baskets, and, of course, Wahaka Mezcal supplied the delicious sips that accompanied the three dishes, all of which featured peppers and chiles, a tactic taken on all month to stand up to the fire and smoke of mezcal. Sweet notes were also frequent, and both seemed correct choices when dealing with such strong libations. The patio was packed. The stage was set, and off we went into the evening tasting offerings from Derek Ainsa of Le Cordon Bleu, Mike Lyons of The Natural Epicurean, and Charles Ukatu of Escoffier School of Culinary Arts.

Dish One: Derek Ainsa presented a ribeye steak with sautee of eggplant, chiles, and crispy bitter hibiscus leaves accompanied by guacamole drizzled with chocolate sauce. Yes, chocolate sauce. Which, by the way, was delicious against the wild heat created by the chiles. The ribeye was tender and at a nice temperature, but oddly butchered. Granted, he was cooking for fifty or so people, but it was hard to tell it was a ribeye at all.

Dish Two: Mike Lyons, who worked with pork, delivered a delicious play on a taco. The Natural Epicurean teaches students without the use of animal products: no meat, no animal fat, no dairy. So if was interesting to see if his basket would have meat or not. It did indeed, and the ground pork from Richardson Farms was out-of-this-world tender, robust, gristle-free, and wonderful. He stewed it down with tamarind, figs, and peppers and set it inside a leaf of green lettuce. A sturdy mash of sweet potatoes was studded and topped with chopped peanuts. An avocado, lime, and cilantro sauce rimmed the plate. It was playful, well-executed and smart. This guy had no problem working with pig.

Dish Three: Charles Ukata gave us a tortilla-crusted tilapia with brown rice and stew of peppers, zucchini, squash, as well as a “mole” sauce of peppers, garlic, sunflower seeds, and fish stock, which he made from the bones of his tilapia. He got a whole lot down in four hours, but the brown rice was a bit boring if very tender and the fish, which he chose to bake, was a bit mushy. Fresh cilantro brightened things up a but, but that fish needed to be crisp.

Again, judges filled out sheets scorning these dishes in terms of appearance, creativity and taste, and in the end Mike Lyons’ lettuce and pork taco with that delicious sweet potato-peanut mash won the event. Thank you speeches were made and pictures were taken; the speeches were as fun as any part of the evening. Lyons will begin a six-month stint in Papi Tino’s kitchen learning all that he can about Mexican cuisine from Executive chef Eduardo Pineda. Heartiest congratulations to Mike.

A quick aside about the group behind this event: Vess Consulting. Much of what happens in the food world these days is quite outside the normal day-in day-out of restaurants, farms, chefs, and patrons. Marketing groups throng parties, create tastings, put on events practically every night in Austin, and sometimes it’s hard to get into the spirit of said event. It’s hard to forget that it’s promotion, plain and simple. But, this one was different. Ernesto Santillan and Drew Davis from Vess Consulting kept the focus wholly on the students and the food, on promoting culinary education, and on having a really great time. We weren’t hit over the head with promotion, just easily nudged into knowing all the awesome locals who gave their time, product, and effort into making it all happen — very well done. We will look forward to next year’s competition.

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