Food-o-File

TRIO at the Four Seasons' Todd Duplechan won the Texas Chef Showdown last week during Go Texan Restaurant Round-Up, and the event's produce proved that even corporate restaurants are supporting local food sources

The centerpiece of Austin's participation in the Texas Department of Agriculture's Go Texan Res­taurant Round-Up was the first ever Texas Chef Showdown held last week at the Hyatt Regency. I was one of a group of journalists and bloggers invited to judge the event. The chef contestants – Kevin Dee of the Hyatt's Southwest Bistro, Todd Duple­chan of TRIO at the Four Seasons, and Stephen Bonin of the Driskill Grill – were supplied with proteins from Texas sources (shrimp, snapper, lamb shanks) and then encouraged to shop for their remaining ingredients at local farmers' markets in order to create more than 100 servings of an appetizer and an entrée. The chefs presented their dishes to the judges' table and then served the rest of the diners from stations set up around the dining room. The produce used revealed some interesting information about seasonal availability around the state, such as the fact that sweet corn grows in East Texas this time of year, and custardy fuyu persimmons thrive in Central Texas in the fall. The best things I tasted were a butternut squash soup complemented by a Pure Luck chèvre mousse and pecan pesto, creamy grits made with Pure Luck Hopelessly Bleu cheese, and some smoked shrimp corn dogs in a pool of bright-yellow corn puree. Kudos to TRIO's Duple­chan, who won with two Gulf shrimp dishes. The most interesting realization of the evening was that the hotel corporations who run all three of the participating restaurants are allowing their chefs the freedom and flexibility to support local and regional food sources. Shopping locally requires a commitment of both time and money and is most often practiced in chef-owned, independent restaurants with the flexibility to allow some menu items to be driven by seasonal produce availability. While some area farmers and ranchers who produce meats, cheeses, and eggs are able to deliver directly to restaurant kitchens, most vegetable growers are unable to offer credit sales or provide delivery. Some growers do have websites or e-mail newsletters listing seasonal availability, but generally it's necessary for chefs to send foragers to market to shop for them. That's why you'll see the chefs mentioned above, along with Eric Pol­zer (Wink), Jesse Grif­fiths (Dai Due), James Holmes and Morgan Angelone (Olivia), Jason Donoho (ASTI/FINO), R.J. Spade (Blue Star Cafe­teria), John Bul­ling­ton and Trish Eichelber­ger (Alamo Draft­house), Rene Ortiz (La Con­desa), Mark Spedale (Primizie), Ben Wilcott (Texas French Bread), Deegan McClung (Jeffrey's), and Valerie Broussard (Barr Man­sion) checking out the weekly offerings at Boggy Creek Farm, the Austin Farmers Market, and the Sunset Valley Farmer's Market. The best way to find local ingredients on restaurant menus is to ask about seasonal specials. Even restaurants with their own organic gardens, such as Eastside Cafe, Madam Mam's, Vespaio, or Fonda San Miguel, can only grow a fraction of the produce necessary for busy restaurant kitchens, so their homegrown produce is likely to be featured only in seasonal chef's specials as well. One Austin restaurant chain that got into the farm-to-table habit long before the current locavore trend sprouted is Kerbey Lane Cafes. The homegrown breakfast and comfort-food chain began contracting with area farmers to grow tomatoes and other summer vegetables about 15 years ago and continues the practice to this day. You can currently find produce from Engel Farms near Fredericksburg on Kerbey Lane's seasonal, catering, and everyday menus.

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