Papi Tino’s Culinary Student Competition Has Its Finalists

Week Three: Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts

Wednesday night, the third and final school, Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, sent two of its best to cook in a competition at Eastside Papi Tino’s. And after yummy mezcal-influenced cocktails, two lovely dishes, and some quick calculating, the final three students have been chosen.

Week Three of the competition saw some new moments: its first woman competitor, the first time both dishes went decidedly Mexican, and the first truly playful cocktail put on by Papi Tino’s bar.

Let’s begin at the beginning: the cocktail. In weeks past, guests and judges gathered at the bar and enjoyed a drink before being seated for dinner outside under the canopy of trees. This week the drink was a delicious play on a pina colada, which under normal conditions has more calories than a Quarter Pounder with cheese and can be cloyingly sweet. Here, Wahaka Madre-Cuiche mezcal was shaken with fresh pineapple juice, lime juice, agave nectar, and a little coconut milk, and garnished with a fresh cold hunk of pineapple. The smokey mezcal really toned down the sweetness that rum brings to the party, and the drink came off balanced, strong, and creamy without being too rich. Kudos to Robert Campbell, who crafted the components of the drink, and also to bartender Alonzo Davis, for making it so well and handling his bar like a pro.

This night, we also saw both competitors present dishes with a definite Mexican focus. While this choice is quite in line with someone vying for a job in a Mexican restaurant, it’s certainly a risky move in Austin, where everyone, including all the recent Cali and New York imports, has unwavering opinions about tacos, tamales, and margaritas. And this evening it didn’t come down to execution as much as it did to inspiration.

Dish One: Deconstructed Tamales by Derek Ainsa. Roasted and shredded pork cooked in a red chile sauce was accompanied by a masa ball studded with corn. It was first steamed and then deep fried, which created a delicious crust. A tomatillo sauce accompanied the pork and masa: it was perfectly spicy, which in my book means very hot, but not so hot you can’t taste anything else. The dish was super. My plate was clean.

Dish Two: Duo of Fish Tacos by Liz Vaknin. Lightly charred corn tortillas housed halibut filets that for one taco had been marinated, grilled, and served with a pineapple-peach salsa, while the other was deep fried and served with purple cabbage and carrot slaw. A corn and hatch chile relish separated the two tacos. While both were well-executed, I can name ten restaurants in ten seconds within ten miles that serve these very same tacos. Again, choosing tacos is a risk in a cooking competition in Austin. To stand out, they must be reinvented in some way. They could poke fun at a traditional taco. Something. Vaknin did them well, but, in the end, they were two fish tacos.

So, Derek Ainsa’s tamale dish won the evening’s event and he will return to face previous winners, Mike Lyons from the Natural Epicurean, and Charles Ukatu from Escoffier, in a three-way cook-off Wednesday night the 26th. All three student chefs hit terrific notes on their particular nights: Ukatu’s purple couscous using veal stock to flavor, Lyons’ cilantro-lime sauce thickened with cashews, and the texture Ainsa created by steaming and then frying the masa. Check in here next week for details of the final competition, descriptions of the dishes, and the ultimate winner, who will be found next to chef Edwardo Pineda in the kitchen at Papi Tino’s sometime in the future.

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