Citywide Talent - Meet the Finalists of Citywide 86'd
After several months of qualifying rounds, the four finalists in Uchiko's Citywide 86'd competition face off tonight at the AT&T Executive Education & Conference Center before a sold out crowd. Here's some background on the contestants that might help handicap the race.
When Uchiko started these weekend competitions in their open kitchen, they were just for fun and gave up-and-coming cooks an opportunity to stretch and grow a little, working out against cooks from other local kitchens. Over a period of months, however, the competition got more serious, and now the four cooks who triumphed in the qualifying rounds will cook for an all-expense paid stage in a famous restaurant, and some local bragging rights, for sure.
John Hajash of Congress
John Hajash went from Texas country to California and then Chicago before planting his feet down in Austin, though this was the place he always wanted to end up. "Being from Texas, I just always wanted to live here," he explains.
He's a Bryan boy whose "country" side meant being raised with a quarter-acre garden. It was always being utilized, the family opting to cook at home with their fresh ingredients instead of going out. That family tradition gave him familiarity with turning raw ingredients into something more, a skill John uses in other areas besides the kitchen. What took Hajash to California was not culinary school, but art school. His last semester of high school, he went to study painting on a campus that focused on teaching art. One of the techniques he practiced was taking found materials and shaping them into artwork; a method of raw creation metaphorical for conceptualizing dishes.
While studying art, however, John didn't stop cooking. The summer he spent at art school took him to Northern California, where he cooked in the kitchen of a circus camp. Circus camp is exactly what it sounds like - a place where kids learn how to perform the acts. "It was all … really strange. Even the owner. He used to ride around in a golf cart, dressed up as a clown, and whenever we cooked for him he always wanted us to burn his food. He'd come in and ask, 'Can you burn this chicken for me?'" Needless to say, he didn't return to that gig. Following art once more, Hajash briefly continued his studies in Chicago, but couldn't seem to immerse himself in the scene there. Austin was the place he always knew he wanted to go, so he finally followed his heart to the place where he belongs.
"I love the efficiency of a kitchen. I like being able to take raw product and do something with it and learn all the different processes of how to do it." Even outside the kitchen, he is continually learning. He takes in cookbooks to learn new flavor profiles and discover new techniques. He's hoping his research will help him in the competition, but, as he said, "At the end of the day, it's whatever they throw at you, and who can move quick enough."
Chase Gintner of Sway
Four months ago, Chase Gintner of Sway came from Wisconsin. I know - Wisconsin? Surprisingly enough, the Italian restaurant where he worked there is one of Urban Spoon's 250 best restaurants in the United States. So, good things besides cheese and football really do exist in the chilly state. "That's why I came here. There, if you want to eat anywhere good, it's very few and far between. Here, it's down the street. And of course the weather … I haven't had to shovel sunshine yet," he says with a smile.
Chase's culinary beginnings have unique roots. When most people say their mother taught them to cook, they are referring to learning her recipes, or maybe preparing dishes side by side to learn techniques. For Chase, it's the opposite. He began cooking because his mother was actually a horrible cook, and somebody had to do something. "I remember the first thing I made; I was maybe twelve or thirteen. I took a box of mac and cheese, and made the sauce on the side with hamburger and spices in it," he said, smiling at his humble beginnings. "My dad and I would joke that we'd buy can openers by the six pack, because we'd go through so many since it was all Campbell's Soup recipes."
Tomorrow’s competition also has unique roots for Chase - he'll be competing against a co-worker he also views as a mentor, Joaquin Ceballos. "I think Joaquin is one of the most talented people I've ever worked with," he told me. During the fourth round where Chase competed, Joaquin took him over to the side in a moment of coaching. It was down to the final two, win or go home. Joaquin stressed, “You have to kill this last dessert course, or it won’t go in your favor.”
"If I can beat Joaquin, I feel like that's an accomplishment in itself." This isn't to say he wouldn't love to win the whole thing. In preparation, he's been experimenting with desserts at home, and even has methods picked out he'll want to try no matter what ingredients he finds in those bags.
Joaquin Ceballos of Sway
Joaquin Ceballos may hail from Laredo, but his journey to Austin has been paved with cultural experiences most people won't have in a lifetime. After high school, he knew he needed a path. When he realized he could make cooking into a career, something clicked. He knew it was what he needed to do. There is no further way to explain the choice, besides perhaps: "I love being in the kitchen because it's our own little world. It's like a brotherhood, and you all become a family," he reflected.
Joaquin chose to attend the Culinary Institute of Mexico in Monterrey, studying for five years and finishing with a thesis focused on local beer and food pairings. During his time there, he made the decision to take an externship in a seven-star hotel in Dubai. The kitchens of Dubai were completely different – staffed with truly international cooking brigades; cooks from every part of Europe, and the farthest reaches of Asia. Working beside them, he learned to communicate better, and observed cooking styles from places he may never see. "It was such a culture shock from the first moment I walked into the airport,” he recalls. “Seeing the prayer rooms in malls, and every bus stop having air conditioning… it was amazing."
He spent half a year in Dubai before returning to Mexico to finish his thesis. After graduation, he went back home briefly, while he was deciding where to go next. Something clicked during a weekend visit to Austin, and Ceballos knew it was where his path was taking him next. He packed his bags to move. It seems almost preordained when he talks about it, especially since Rene Ortiz was the only Austin chef to elevate him to where he is today. "I staged a few different places, but something about La Condesa's kitchen just spoke to me. I felt like it was a different type of cooking," he explained.
Now, his path has brought him to Sway and into the midst of a highly anticipated competition. Going up against someone he's trained and taken under his wing, Joaquin has a humble viewpoint on the unique situation. "Rene taught me what he wanted for the restaurant, and I needed someone to do that for. When Chase came in, you could see he had that passion. I taught him everything I was taught, and he's a great guy. I'll be a happy man if he takes it."
Brandon Martin of Foreign & Domestic
Brandon Martin ping-ponged between West Texas and Austin for a while before permanently settling here. It wasn't the culinary explosion of our city that made him fall in love with cooking, though. Rather, it was how different Austin was from West Texas. Love grows where it will, and love is also what finally drove him into chasing after this career. He was twenty-five, and his girlfriend at the time was the mitigating factor in his pursuit. She saw his passion, and he was able to own it. "My attention to detail and drive for perfect execution even at a low level of cooking seemed to tell me I have a future in the kitchen," he explained.
Brandon came to Austin with no formal culinary training. After discussing his options with many people, he thought it would be better to save the money and gather knowledge from working with talented chefs who would teach him and push him. He views it as the best decision he's ever made. Every day, Foreign & Domestic's Chef Ned Elliot coaches him to be better and - again - love comes in as an influence from his family.
"My sister Amber challenges me to be better and critiques my food in a positive manner. My aunt Mindy has helped me out the most though, because without her help, it would have been very difficult to be a line cook on the kind of salaries we make,” he says with gratitude. In preparation for 86'd, he's studying like he would for any educational test. He's reading, taking notes on techniques, practicing his desserts at home. While he is nervous, he views it positively. "I feel like I am much, much more prepared for this than the first one. But at the same time, having more time to think puts more emphasis on this, so the nerves are there."
Be sure to check our blog later this week for a recap of the finals.
Citywide 86'd (sold out)
AT&T Executive Education & Conference Center