Final Four

The 2014 Top Chef competition was a dramatic culinary exhibition and one of the hottest parties in town.

After all the judges’ scorecards were tabulated, the winner of the 2014 Top Chef competition was Chef Todd Phillips with a total combined score of 95 points. His fellow finalists only trailed him by a four-point spread, making this the closest margin ever in the past five years of Fort Worth, Texas magazine’s annual competition.

The night was complete with all the bells and whistles, including smoke machines, videos, music, food and excitement. Cendera Center hosted our final four.
Chef Jon Bonnell was the host and head judge for this 2014 edition of our annual high-stakes cook-off, while Emmy Award-winning sports anchor Scott Murray served again as emcee. Guests dined on delicacies from Savoy Culinary Services, Del Frisco’s, Capital Grille, Max’s Wine Dive, Nosredna Boutique Catering Co., Tastefully Yours Catering, Chef V and Nothing Bundt Cakes.

Par Excellence
After the preliminary round held in June, four of the area’s finest chefs secured their spot in the showdown.

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Todd Phillips has more than 24 years of experience. He has served as the executive chef at J.R.’s Grill for the past nine years. Phillips says, “I am constantly thinking of food, seriously, like all hours of the day.” He calls his style “new-que,” which is a mixture of barbecue and Southern cuisine elevated to a higher standard. “The most important aspect of the dish is the ingredients. Sounds simple but it is true,” he says. “Without good ingredients, the dish is only going to be mediocre. Obviously you need some skill to create a dish into a masterpiece.”

David McMillan put the Meddlesome Moth on the map in Dallas and was instrumental in this year’s successful launch of Bird Cafe in Sundance Square. After growing up in Berkeley, Calif., he says, “I studied fine arts and sculpture at Boston University before a stay in Europe re-set me on a culinary course.” The time he spent working in wine-centric regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa only reinforced his love of fresh and seasonal ingredients. Playing multiple roles throughout his career, McMillan has been chef, owner and caterer for top-rated restaurants, hotels, Hollywood celebrities and world dignitaries.

Sebastien Layen was named executive chef of Omni Fort Worth in 2011. A native of France, Layen received his culinary training in Europe. His personal style is French with a local influence. He says, “I use my French training and recipes, then turn them into something local by using local flair, ingredients and also the season.” Layen currently oversees all aspects of food and beverage preparation for the Omni’s restaurants, including the award-winning Cast Iron Restaurant. He always strives for “balance of the flavor, seasoning, perfect temperature and nice, clean presentations.”

Jason Harper has been the executive chef and owner of Trio New American Cafe in Colleyville for the past five years. “I prepare globally inspired fare with a focus on French, Asian and Latin cuisine,” he says. Over the years, he has had the privilege to work with many iconic chefs, such as Susan Spicer, Bruce Auden and Martin Yan. Before opening his own restaurant, Harper was sous chef at Abacus in Dallas under Iron Chef winner Kent Rathbun. One of his favorite menu items is Trio’s Grilled Akaushi Ribeye, served with smoked pomme purée, crispy artichokes and charred ramp compound butter. He says, “The charred ramps with the smoky potatoes are such a majestic fit for a great steak.”

Ready, Set, Skills
Chef Bonnell got the show going with a set of three skill challenges. “These are varsity-level challengers,” said Bonnell, “so I had to come up with some difficult challenges to test their skills.”

He began by limiting the number of senses they could utilize during the challenge. He took away their abilities of sight and hearing. Blindfolded and wearing earphones, the contestants had to identify five different items. After tasting and correctly identifying a walnut, a piece of cauliflower, fresh beet, smoked salmon and chili oil, our contestants were still virtually neck and neck.

The next challenge was to whisk together the perfect hollandaise sauce. Points were awarded for speed and taste. “This is a sauce every chef knows how to make, but it is also a delicate and tricky sauce,” Bonnell said. “If the ingredients are not incorporated in the right order or at the right temperature, it can break on you in a hurry.” Chef Harper won this challenge by ringing his bell first, followed by Phillips, Layen and McMillan, who took his sweet time and perfected his hollandaise with an emulsion blender.

The third of the quick-skill challenges awarded three bonus points to the winner. Bonnell prepared a white gazpacho in his restaurant kitchen and allowed the entire audience to sample it along with the finalists. The soup contained exactly 12 ingredients, and our contestants were asked to name them, with one catch: “If you miss one ingredient, you’re out,” said Bonnell. After tasting, they began listing items like cucumber, salt, yellow tomatoes and cream. Layen was the last man standing and was awarded the bonus points moving into the cooking challenge.

Wild Cards
For the first time, at this year's competition Bonnell allowed each of our finalists to bring along a sous chef of their own choosing.
Cooking alongside Chef Layen was Eddie Springfield, executive sous chef at the Omni Fort Worth. After three years working together, the two seemed to be in perfect sync.

Jason Harper’s wingman was Sous Chef Kevin Cedillo. After a successful stint at the award-winning Lodge at Torrey Pines, this Texas native returned home where he crossed paths with Chef Jason Harper. Kevin now plays a key role in daily operations and menu development at Trio. Cedillo was by far the tidiest sous chef on the stage.

Chef McMillan brought along a trusted friend of more than 11 years. After working together for five years at the Meddlesome Moth, Joe Synatschk now serves as its executive chef at the Meddlesome Moth. A graduate of the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, N.Y., Synatschk blends classic and old-world techniques with Southern and strong Texas roots.

Crystal LaPree joined Todd Phillips. LaPree has worked with Phillips for the past four years as his sous chef. She is classically trained and a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu.

Top-Notch Tasters
Our head judge, Chef Jon Bonnell, is a graduate of the prestigious New England Culinary Institute. He has authored three cookbooks: Jon Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine, Jon Bonnell’s Texas Favorites, and Jon Bonnell’s Waters Fine Coastal Cuisine. Chef Bonnell has cooked at the famed James Beard House in New York City in 2004, 2005 and 2008. His namesake restaurant, Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine, has won the “Award of Excellence” from Wine Spectator each year since 2004 and has been consistently rated among the top restaurants in the state by Zagat. His newest restaurant concept, Waters Bonnell’s Coastal Cuisine, opened to rave reviews in March 2013.

Judie Byrd recently retired after 11-plus years as food editor of Fort Worth, Texas magazine. She says, “It was just the right time to give someone else a chance to enjoy that fabulous opportunity!” As always, Byrd has many other irons in the fire. She began a new business venture with her daughter and son and is in high demand teaching cooking seminars for various women’s, church and faith-based groups. Along with traveling and spending more time with her five grandkids, Byrd enjoys mentoring eight young moms at a time in her home kitchen. She is also the founder of The Culinary School of Fort Worth and host of Judie Byrd’s Kitchen on FamilyNet cable.

Russell Kirkpatrick began his culinary career by opening multiple locations of Johnny Carino’s Italian Grills in the Metroplex. Kirkpatrick has served as assistant general manager at Reata Restaurant for the past nine years. He is the current past president of the Tarrant County Restaurant Association, where he was also awarded “Restaurateur of the Year” in 2012. So far, 2014 has been a very successful year for this judge. Kirkpatrick presided over the first Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival last March as executive director & co-founder and was recognized by the Fort Worth Business Press in their “40 under 40” class. Now he can add Top Chef judge to his resume.

Finally, we welcomed back the reigning champion of Top Chef 2013, Anthony Felli of Del Frisco’s. After advancing on to the finals two years in a row, Chef Felli wowed the audience and judges’ panel last year by preparing tender rabbit with potato gnocchi made from scratch in 20 minutes flat. With 20 years of culinary experience, Anthony Felli still has a penchant for simple, well-prepared dishes. He has been at the helm of Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House for the past six years now.

Surf, Turf and Stress
Fresh Point donated shelves full of produce for our chefs to choose from, and Ocean Beauty provided the seafood for the event. With just 25 minutes to prepare five identical plates (four for the judges to inspect and one for show), Bonnell threw the challengers for a loop by introducing not one, but two secret ingredients they needed to highlight in their dishes.

Bonnell presented our contestants with live lobsters and beef brisket (which is a notoriously tough cut, and given the option, the chefs would typically choose to slow cook brisket for hours to tenderize it). After wiping the look of despair from their faces and consulting with their sous chefs, each came up with a creative plan of attack as the clock began to count down.

Chef McMillan began his plating with a base of polenta and stacked his presentation of a julienne of endive and fresh dill for garnish. The lovely lobster tail meat was front and center, and his minced brisket was plated to the side. Judge Felli said, “This brisket is surprisingly tender, and it has just the right amount of acid.” Byrd loved the flavor of the beef and the addition of fresh dill. Bonnell said, “To pull off brisket in this amount of time and present lobster cooked just right is impressive. The plate had a lot of interesting color.” Kirkpatrick also noted the nice acid coming from the orange. He said, “This chef knocked it out of the park.”

Chef Layen quickly boiled and sectioned his lobster and then grilled it to finish. He made a bright beet sauce for plating his grilled and sliced brisket topped with hearty chopped mushrooms. Peeled Brussels sprout leaves were arranged atop his red lobster, adding to his colorful plate. Bonnell said, “This is a stunning presentation. It had an excellent use of bacon. I would order this dish again.” Byrd said, “The big piece of lobster is fabulous.” She loved the preparation of the Brussels sprouts and was awestruck by the tender brisket. Kirkpatrick noted the texture of the dish by the addition of chopped pecans, the color by the beet puree and freshness from the Brussels sprouts. Felli said, “The fat on the brisket is a critical element in this dish, and it imparts a lot of flavor.”

Chef Harper shaved both red and yellow beets on a mandoline, then julienned them along with carrots for a bright topping to his dish. He browned thinly sliced potato and layered it with brisket for a creative twist. His dish contained both lobster claw and tail meat and fresh broccolini. Kirkpatrick said, “Unlike Jon and his 18-inch waist, mine seems to be expanding tonight.” Byrd liked the big pieces of lobster and the use of broccolini and cabbage. She said they “added lightness to the dish.” Felli said, “This one is beautiful, and the potatoes are fantastic. The macerated vegetables add just the right amount of acid.” Bonnell thought it was a creative use of ingredients with brisket tucked in between the potatoes. He said, “This is a classy plate.”

Chef Phillips tenderized his thinly sliced brisket with the tip of his knife and presented his beef rare, which was completely unexpected. His presentation was lovely on a bed of the creamiest of cheese grits with quartered Brussels sprouts and grilled red onions. Byrd said, “This is the closest competition we have had in the past five years. None of us have one negative thing to say about any of these dishes.” Kirkpatrick agreed, “All four have done an incredible job; if you haven’t been to these restaurants yet — go tomorrow!” Felli said, “I have only two words for you — cheesy grits! And, rare brisket? I don’t know how he did that.” Bonnell thought it was a classic and modern presentation. “The lobster is phenomenally seasoned,” he said.