CHEF SUPREME

More than 400 food lovers packed Cendera Center on Aug. 15 to watch four of the area’s hottest chefs compete. When the smoke cleared, only one could earn the title of Top Chef.

by Courtney Dabney • photography by Jason Kindig
Anticipation gave way to excitement when the four Top Chef finalists went head-to-head in the final round of our annual competition. When the score sheets were tallied, a new champion was crowned. The winner of Fort Worth, Texas magazine’s 2013 Top Chef competition was Anthony Felli of Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House.

Scott Murray was our host for the evening. Murray collected multiple Emmy Awards during his 30-year career with NBC. Since retiring from broadcast journalism as a television sports anchor, he has been busy publishing and emceeing local events. Along with his son, he founded Murray Media, a video television production company. Brooke Williamson, a broadcast journalism major at SMU, was co-host for the evening.

Guests were served a delectable array of appetizers prepared by the Tarrant Area Food Bank Community Kitchen program. Events like Top Chef 2013 provide these culinary students with marketable experience in food preparation, catering and service. The training program acts as a gateway to securing jobs in the food service industry. Students, many of whom are low-income or homeless, could not participate without generous food donations by outside sponsors. We’re incredibly thankful to Sysco and Fresh Point, who covered the items needed for the students to prepare appetizers like Shrimp Brochette and Fried Pecan Crusted Goat Cheese Croutons for the event.

 

Meet the Finalists Todd Phillips of J. R.’s Steakhouse is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He has 23 years of experience to draw upon. Phillips says the kitchen utensil that he couldn’t live without is his tongs. “They are an extension of me. They touch every ingredient.” He gains his inspiration from “good quality, fresh ingredients, cooked simply.” Phillips loves the Dry Aged New York Strip on their menu. “It is thick and charred. The cut is meaty, fork-tender, and full of flavor, while remaining extremely moist, and the little bit of char on the outside offers a crunch of texture,” he says.

The road that led chef Eric Hunter to opening his popular Fire Oak Grill in Weatherford began with a stint in Augusta, Ga., at Pullham Hall. Hunter also gained experience working with the likes of Chef Paul Albrecht at Spice Restaurant and Chef Tim Love at Lonesome Dove Western Bistro. On a recent trip to New Orleans, he was inspired by many restaurants that do all the charcuterie in-house. Hunter says, “That is something which doesn’t happen much around here. I constantly have something curing or aging for the menu. We cure our own bacon and make sausages like chorizo, sopressata and pepperoni.”

With 20 years of culinary experience, Anthony Felli still has a penchant for simple, well-prepared dishes. “One of my favorite dishes here remains the Osso Buco. Our preparation of this rustic dish is just that…rustic. We purchase the best product available and prepare it in such a way that the veal is the absolute star –  slow braised in a hearty tomato and onion sauce,” he says. Felli has been at the helm of Del Frisco’s for the past five years and has a unique view of the city from his perch. He says, “I am constantly amazed by the generosity of our community. It is such a privilege to be able to participate in so many different events and fundraising efforts throughout our city. I see first hand the heart of this city in action, and it is very gratifying.”

Kyle Jones of Truluck’s has perfected his flair for “Southern Comfort Food” while working under the likes of Jeff Harris at Craft and David Gilbert at Lazare. One of his favorite menu items features a wide range of flavors that marry seamlessly: the Spicy Halibut. He says, “I love the dish because it uses all your taste buds – spicy blackening seasoning on the broiled halibut, along with a cold and refreshing salad of tomatoes, crab, jalapeños, avocado and cilantro are all tossed in a sweet and salty Thai chili sauce with the tangy zip of lemon juice.” His favorite technique is braising proteins. “A simple braise can turn a tough, less-expensive piece of meat into a rich, tender and comforting food,” he says.

 

Panel of Judges Judie Byrd is the food editor for Fort Worth, Texas magazine. She is also the author of several cookbooks, including Help! My Family’s Hungry, Meals in Minutes and Everyday Family Recipes. Her passion to teach people to cook started with a class for moms in her home kitchen and developed into The Culinary School of Fort Worth, a fully accredited cooking school, located on Camp Bowie.

Blaine Staniford is the reigning champion of Top Chef 2012. He has felt the pressure of the final round first hand and knows what it feels like to be presented with the coveted trophy. Staniford serves as executive chef of Grace Restaurant. He has been consulting with owner Adam Jones on the menu for their newest venture, Little Red Wasp, which is set to open in September.

Tammy Dombeck was the popular traffic reporter on KXAS/Channel 5. She left that post last year and can now be seen on KTVT/Channel 11. Dombeck was still glowing from her December 2012 nuptials, and she brought with her a discerning palate.

Serving as head judge, Chef Tim Love has a reputation for being hard to please. Love is a Food Network’s Iron Chef winner, Bravo Channel’s Top Chef Masters’ contestant, and he has served as a Top Chef judge as well. He is chef proprietor of Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, the Love Shack, Woodshed Smokehouse and his newest offering Queenie’s Steakhouse in Denton.

Taste Test and Skills Challenge Love dubbed this competition “The Bearded Top Chef” because each of our finalists was sporting a differing degree of facial hair. “Unfortunately, I just shaved mine off this morning,” he said.

As always, Chef Love dreamed up a difficult taste test for the challengers to decipher. He prepared a Thai vinaigrette and gave them all two minutes to write down as many key ingredients as they could detect. One point would be awarded for each correct answer, and one point would also be deducted for each incorrect answer. Accuracy was paramount.

With ingredients ranging from serrano peppers to rice vinegar and from sesame oil to cilantro, pinpointing the individual components in this vinaigrette was a difficult task. Each chef tasted and studied the flavor profile diligently. After this round, Hunter held a commanding lead with four correct answers. Felli and Phillips trailed by three, winding up with only one point each. Jones was done in by too many deductions for incorrect answers and ended the challenge breaking even.

Points were earned in the skills challenge based upon the order in which each could satisfactorily complete the task. Love required each to whisk together a Gouda Mornay Sauce. As the contestants collected the needed ingredients for the sauce, Love noted, “It looks like everybody is going in the same route.”

The béchamel base began with a white roux of flour and butter, and then heavy cream and Gouda were blended in. “The key is to make sure the cheese is not grainy,” Love said. He would be checking for proper technique and tasting each product for a smooth consistency. Phillips was the first to complete his sauce, followed by Hunter, Felli and Jones. Since Love thought that each had created a “nice clean sauce,” they received points in that order.

Both the taste test and the skills challenge were weighted at 25 percent of the total scoring, leaving 50 percent still on the line in the final cooking event.

 

And the Secret Ingredient Is...Rabbit The chefs were given 20 minutes to plate five creative entries – four for our judges to taste and one for display. After being shown to their cooking stations and briefly glancing at their identical ingredient shelves for inspiration, our chefs waited impatiently for the secret ingredient to be announced. After announcing rabbit as the secret ingredient, he said, “or as I like to say, H.R. Fluff-n-Stuff. On my count...3...2...1. Let’s do it!”

Rabbit is becoming more popular on American tables in recent years and does not have a gamey aftertaste. It is a lean protein, which can be dry if overcooked, and a challenge to prepare in such short order.

Felli began sectioning his rabbit immediately, pounding it thin to tenderize the meat. A roughly chopped wild mushroom sauté would form the base for his dish. I was amazed to watch him prepare what would put his dish over the top - scratch-made potato gnocchi - in just 20 minutes.

Hunter went in the completely opposite direction, spending his time pickling thinly sliced radishes and mushrooms in two different brines. His was the most colorful dish overall, painted with a stroke of butternut squash puree. He chose to serve his rabbit sliced and fanned with a side of braised greens.

Jones was the only one to try a refreshing summer salad. He incorporated corn, freshly sliced strawberry, feta and tomato. The dish was garnished with chives. At first, it looked like he was prepping thighs for the grill, but he was after the dark leg meat for his presentation. Jones began plating with eight minutes to spare and had plenty of time to polish his plates and arrange his salad.

Phillips collected an assortment of mushrooms and sliced them neatly. He chose to showcase the tenderloin cut of his rabbit, lightly flouring them and pan-frying to create the perfect pan jus sauce, which he then drizzled around his plating. The sautéed mushrooms became the base for his stacked design. Radish and an arugula salad topped off his dish, which was plated beautifully.

The Chopping Block About Chef Jones’ dish, Judie Byrd thought a salad was an intelligent choice for the season. She said, “I love the balance and the vinaigrette.” She was amazed by how tender he was able to cook the dark meat. Love, not usually a fan of fruit in his salad, enjoyed the strawberries. Staniford said, “It’s refreshing. It’s hot outside, so this is very seasonal.” He thought the rabbit was well seasoned and cooked properly. Dombeck also thought a salad was perfect, especially for summer.

Next up was Chef Phillips’ plate, which included the addition of bacon. The judges’ table, which was segregated with the women on one side and the men on the other, was also split down the middle on the use of bacon in the dish. The ladies loved it! Dombeck sided for the use of bacon and thought the rabbit was the most tender of all the entries. Love liked the rich depth the maitake mushrooms lent the dish but thought the bacon was unnecessary. Staniford agreed saying, “The flavor was a touch overpowering.”

Chef Felli’s offering was all about the potato gnocchi for the judges. The fact that he had produced a hand-made pasta under such time constraints was amazing. Byrd detected a hint of rosemary and thought his rabbit was cooked perfectly. Love said, “It is the most adventurous dish. While it’s not the best gnocchi I have ever had, it is the best I have ever had in 20 minutes!” Staniford said, “It all comes down to technique, and in this competition, this dish has it.”

On Chef Hunter’s dish, all the judges were intrigued by his pickled components. Dombeck said, “The sauce is a little bland, but the mushrooms are very good.” Byrd commented on how she enjoyed the profusion of garlic in the rabbit but that hers was slightly undercooked. Love said, “This concept is the most culinarily advanced dish we’ve seen. I always say fat, acid and salt make a dish.” Staniford said, “This combination makes perfect sense.”

It was a close outcome and obvious that the chefs were evenly matched, but Anthony Felli scored the highest overall and was presented with the 2013 Top Chef title and trophy. While Chefs Hunter, Phillips and Jones didn’t win, they wowed the audience with their creativity and skill and are eligible to compete next year if their fans produce enough votes.