If Philip Speer, culinary director for the Uchi enterprise, handed me a guinea hen and told me I had thirty minutes to prep and cook it, I would turn into a puddle. But that's what separates the competitors of 86'd, an Austin version of Food Network's show Chopped, from the rest of us.
Each round, I was blown away by the calm, collected manner in which the competing cooks handled themselves.
For any not familiar with Chopped, the format is such: participating chefs are given a basket of random ingredients, and then have x-amount of minutes to make them into full dishes. They are given full access to all the tools of a kitchen, as well as an extensive pantry. At the end of each timed round (there is an appetizer, entrée, and dessert course), they are put in front of a panel of judges who taste and consider what they've created. The person with the lowest ranking dish is then eliminated.
86'd gives local restaurant staff a chance to showcase what they can do. The idea evolved in the kitchens of Uchi, where in-house competitions between chefs, line cooks, and service staff have been held for years. The response was always excitement, and built such camaraderie, that Speer and Tyson Cole (Uchi's founder and executive chef) wanted to expand it to the local culinary scene.
"It's an opportunity to highlight the people in the restaurants that make it run everyday," Speer said, "and not just the big names you hear all the time." (i.e. Paul Qui, Shawn Cirkiel, David Bull, etc. Although, a future competition for the chefs is definitely a thought…)
This past Saturday, the first of four competitions in the series was held at Uchiko. There will be one round per month, until a finale in June where each previous winner competes. The first set of talent was:
•Ryan Shields of Olive and June
•John Hajash of Congress
•Noah Mayes (FOH) of Cafe Josie
•Josh Madden of Swift's Attic
They were shown around a kitchen they had never seen at 9:30 am, a mere fifteen minutes before everything was set to begin. The bags of mystery ingredients sat dauntingly on the counter, and as Speer walked us all through the time constraints and rules, you could see each of them eyeing it curiously.
"It was kind of like Christmas morning," Noah Mayes told me. "Like, 'ohh! What am I gonna get?!'"
No one looked phased when they opened their bags to find pepperoni, guava, potatoes, and chili paste to compose into an appetizer. They didn't show worry about time, either, until the end neared. When "four and a half minutes!" was called, there was a perceptible shift in the way each moved. The tension transferred to us spectators, and I was so nervous I could have jumped out of my skin. But everyone finished, and then it was time to face the panel.
The judges were John Bates, owner and chef of Noble Sandwiches; Jodi Holzband, blogger for Tasty Touring; Diane Dixon, president and co-founder of Keeper Collection; and Philip Speer, director of culinary operations for Uchi/Uchiko.
"The main thing I'm looking for, obviously, is the flavor," Speer claimed. "Also, the uses of the ingredients as far as techniques go. I'm looking for something that takes skill and thought, and basically looking at the plates as if I'm looking at any I would put on our menus."
The deliberation included the judges asking questions such as:
•What's in your sauce?
•Do you think your technique accomplished what you wanted it to?
•What was the hardest ingredient to incorporate?
For the final decision, they were as complimentary as they were critical, and Josh Madden was sent home. The entrée round continued with three, and again went from calm to nerve-wracking. Halfway through the round, I asked Speer how he felt it was going.
"With seventeen minutes left, there need to be more birds cooking right now," he said. At that point, no one had their whole, guinea hens in any pan, oven, or fryer. In fact, judging of this round proved difficult, since parts of the poultry ended up coming out raw.
Fully cooked or not, judgment still needed to be passed, and in the end, Ryan Shields was sent home and John Hajash and Noah Mayes remained to face-off in the making of dessert. "So many things can go wrong with desserts if you don't know how they go," John Bates stated, expressing concern and nerves as they were about to begin.
This time, you could feel the anxiety from the beginning, from both the cooks and the crowd. At four minutes to go, we all watched from the tips of our toes as they scrambled to finish. Stakes were high. Whoever came out on top this time would go on to compete in June. Even the judges appeared to debate these dishes more than any others during their deliberation.
"It was a difficult choice because they both made delicious desserts. But it comes down to breaking down numbers and technicalities, so it became clear. The numbers don't lie," Speers said, referring to the judges scoring.
In the end, the numbers chose John Hajash of Congress, who swept the competition after winning in every category. "My main focus during everything was technique. You have to think about that first; whether you're going to fry, or sear, or do whatever. When you start cooking, you can start to incorporate everything else," Hajash told me.
This was only the beginning for 86'd. It's a tradition Speers is hoping to keep alive, and to grow. It was an experience to watch, up close and personal, the way the people who are behind our dining scenes work. It's also a place to catch emerging talent from some of the cities most talked about places, such as Swift's Attic, Parkside, Sway, and many more who will participate in the future.
"We want to create a greater camaraderie in the industry, and bring everybody together," Speers said. "That's sort of the goal."
The next round of 86'd will be held Saturday, March 23. This round may be open to the public, but whether or not it will be is still unconfirmed.
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