A Cut Above

Fort Worth, Texas magazine’s 2016 Top Chef, Ben Merritt of Fixture – Kitchen and Social Lounge, sliced through this year’s competition.

Cowtown is staking its claim as one of America’s top culinary cities. With its vibrant hotbed of gourmet talent, narrowing down who would compete in this year’s challenge was a monumental task. We turned to our knowledgeable readers for nominations.

Prior to the final competition on June 21, a preliminary event, held at Texas Appliance in Hurst on May 4, knocked Chef Kalen Morgenstern formerly of FW Market + Table and Chef Erin Miller of Texas Bleu out of the competition. The four remaining talented chefs to move forward included Denise Shavandy, Café Modern; Ben Merritt, Fixture - Kitchen and Social Lounge; Kevin Martinez, Tokyo Cafe; and Derek Venutolo, The Capital Grille.

Eager guests spilled through the doors at Cendera Center for the seventh annual Fort Worth, Texas magazine Top Chef Challenge. Scott Murray, former Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist and television sports anchor, once again emceed the event. Guests indulged in refreshments from some of the best eateries Fort Worth has to offer.

Once the burners had cooled and the smoke cleared, Merritt, Fixture’s executive chef, claimed his title as 2016 Top Chef of Fort Worth. His fellow competitors exhibited good sportsmanship as they cheered on his accomplishment.

Fort Worth’s culinary community is a tight group. Showing support for a fellow chef is the rule, not the exception, and that couldn’t have been more evident than in how the 2016 Top Chef competition began.

Local chefs flooded the stage as Head Judge Jon Bonnell introduced and invited up the honored guest, Austin Underwood, who opened his food truck, Austin’s Underdawgs, earlier this year. Chefs wanted to welcome Underwood by giving him an official chef’s coat bearing his name and business. Born with Down syndrome, Underwood has exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations of his independence. As each chef left the stage, he or she shook Underwood’s hand and wished him the best of luck with his gourmet hot dog food truck.

“There are a lot of kids out there like me that want to have a job and be on their own,” Underwood says. “It’s nice to run a business. It’s fun, and I love to meet people. People love buying hot dogs from me. My goal is to one day have my own restaurant.”

Dedicated to addressing hunger and other needs locally, the chefs chose charities they wanted to benefit from the live auction at the event. Throughout the evening, fans could bid on their favorite chef coming to their home and preparing a meal for eight. Four lucky bidders in the audience won “the fifth plate,” which allowed them to experience the same dishes that the judges tasted during the competition. More than $12,000 was raised, with a portion of the proceeds going to the chefs’ chosen charities.

FOOD FIGHTERS

Denise Shavandy, executive chef at Café Modern, is known for experimenting with a variety of ethnic flavors from the Deep South to the Far East. With a focus on local artisan products and seasonal produce, Shavandy has served as executive chef for eatZi’s Market & Bakery in Dallas and as a culinary instructor at Texas State Technical College. She has also worked with local and nationally acclaimed chefs during her time as cooking school manager at Central Market.

Merritt developed a passion for cooking during his travels in the U.S. Navy. During his career, Merritt has worked alongside several of America’s prestigious chefs, including Chef Stephan Pyles. At Fixture, Merritt delivers delicious creations like Texas Beet Fries and Chicken and Waffles. With an aversion to lab-engineered and processed foods, Merritt has dedicated more than 10 years of his life to the restaurant industry and is an American Culinary Federation Certified Culinarian.

Denton native Kevin Martinez is executive chef of Tokyo Café and owner of the popular Yatai Food Kart. Growing up in a large family, Martinez was influenced by what was going on in the kitchen. After attending culinary school, Martinez honed his skills and developed his palate in a variety of arenas from Four Diamond-rated hotels to the Colonial Country Club. He then moved on to become the chef de cuisine at west Fort Worth’s Tokyo Cafe.

Derek Venutolo, executive chef partner at The Capital Grille in downtown Fort Worth, returned to the competition for the second consecutive year. He graduated on the President's list from Western Culinary Arts Institute in Portland, Ore., before training under executive chef Matt Hewitt, then for King's Seafood Co. of Southern California, and executive chef Shelly Bojorquez at the 555 East American Steakhouse. "My mother was the first one to inspire my love for food. She had me in the kitchen at a really young age, helping her cook and bake," Venutolo says. Already a local competition winner, he won overall best food at Big Taste of Fort Worth in 2014 and 2016.

THE JUDGES: SOPHISTICATED PALATES

In recent years, Bonnell graced our magazine’s cover as “The Most Loved Chef in Fort Worth.” Ask anyone who knows him, and they will agree. A graduate of the prestigious New England Culinary Institute, Bonnell and his restaurants have become Fort Worth staples. He is the executive chef and owner of the Bonnell’s Restaurant Group, which includes his flagship restaurant, Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine, the highly acclaimed Waters, and the TCU sports bar Buffalo Bros, Pizza Wings & Subs. Bonnell has authored three cookbooks: Jon Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine, Jon Bonnell’s Texas Favorites, and Jon Bonnell’s Waters Fine Coastal Cuisine. He is also the celebrity chef of TCU’s Amon G. Carter Stadium.

Judie Byrd has been contributing her culinary prowess to Fort Worth, Texas magazine for more than a decade. Byrd is the author of several cookbooks, including Help! My Family's Hungry, Meals in Minutes and Everyday Family Recipes. She stays busy teaching cooking seminars for various women’s, church and faith-based groups. Along with traveling and spending time with her five grandkids, Judie also enjoys mentoring young mothers.

Todd Phillips graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. With more than 25 years of hands-on experience and winning the magazine’s Top Chef Challenge in 2014, Phillips has the credentials to make him a judge worthy of this competition. Working at J.R.’s Steak & Grill, Reata, the Ritz-Carlton and Canyon Ranch Spa enabled him to create inventive dishes that offer guests a veritable feast of flavors. Phillips has described his style of elevating barbecue and Southern cuisine to a higher standard as “new-cue.”

It’s easy to spot last year’s Top Chef winner, Stefon Rishel; just look for his signature mohawk. For this occasion, he went with hot pink. Rishel says, "The one item I could not live without is my utility knife that my wife had custom made for me as a wedding present. It goes through everything like butter.” Rishel is a self-taught chef and worked at Max’s Wine Dive as executive chef until a recent and temporary move to Houston. He has been recognized for producing the Best Dish at Taste of Fort Worth 2015, as well as Best Comfort Food 2014, Best Use of Bacon 2014, and Best Brunch in Fort Worth 2014 and 2015 from Fort Worth, Texas magazine's Best Of issue.

With more than 20 years’ experience with operations and development, Steve Mitchell’s skills go far beyond his chef abilities. Currently the director of operations and executive chef at The Grille at The Harbor on Possum Kingdom Lake, Mitchell is associated with other local concepts including Lucile’s Stateside Bistro, H-3 Ranch, Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, Yucatan Taco Stand & Tequila Bar, and Buffalo Gap Steakhouse.

CULINARY GAUNTLET

Competition elements at this year’s Top Chef varied slightly from previous years, adding unexpected and exciting twists for those who attend the event annually.

The People’s Choice Award allowed the audience the chance to text votes for their favorite chefs. Fans could vote up to five times, and in the case of tied results, votes would have been used to determine a winner.

The first challenge for the chefs tested their tasting abilities in detecting flavor components within a sauce. Bonnell presented a Green Curry Sauce, which had been prepared by Chef Rishel, and asked them to begin guessing each of the 17 ingredients. Samples of the sauce were passed out among those in the audience so they could guess for themselves. As a single elimination challenge, the chefs tasted the sauce again and again, trying to single out what had gone into it. Venutolo came out on top with the most points.

A whipping fury was unleashed for challenge No. 2. Each contestant was given six eggs that had to be separated and whipped by hand until there were stiff peaks and the mixing bowl could be flipped upside down without the contents spilling for three full seconds. Sweat glistened from each of the chefs’ brows as they speedily flipped their wrists, whisking the egg whites into submission. “It’s much easier with appliances, isn’t it,” Bonnell joked. Venutolo finished well before his competitors, with Merritt coming in second.

If a chef was going to win the third challenge, he or she had to be an expert at thinking on his or her feet. First, they drew for the order in which they’d get to choose from the ingredients. The chefs then had nine minutes to create a dish that incorporated only five ingredients in a successful way. Five trays consisted of the following items: shrimp, chicken breast, tuna, duck breast, coconut, kumquat, blood orange, dragon fruit, celery root, turnip, radish, eggplant, artichoke, ginger, cactus, jalapeño, sage, watercress, oregano and thyme. When the chefs had made their final selections, the ante was upped when Chef Bonnell asked the challengers to take one step to the side, thus making them work their magic with the ingredients chosen by their competitor.

Firing up their burners, the room started heating up. Olive oil smoked off the sizzling saucepans in wait of the chefs’ intentions, and the delicious aromas soon made their way to those in the audience.

In the speed challenge, it was Merritt and Venutolo whose dishes soared among the judges. Merritt managed to create a pan-seared duck breast on grilled eggplant with a jalapeño and pickled dragon fruit salsa. He admitted that before this competition, he had never tasted or used dragon fruit in his cooking. Venutolo made grilled shrimp with fennel potato hash, fire roasted tomatillo salsa and pomegranate thyme vinaigrette.

Once the speed-round dishes had been judged, it was time to proceed with the main event. Each chef would have 25 minutes to make five plates of the same dish using the secret ingredients and the items in their on-stage pantries. The judges would rank them based on four criteria: presentation, use of main ingredients, degree of difficulty and overall taste. Chefs were allowed to bring a sous chef to assist them in this final determining round.

It was time to reveal the secret ingredients. Bonnell first presented the chefs with yellow tail snapper. Knowing that snapper is a relatively easy ingredient to work with, the chefs were waiting for the other shoe to drop. When the other ingredient was revealed, it was obvious by the chefs’ expressions that they were contemplating how to incorporate the fish and the fowl cohesively into one winning dish. The audience looked puzzled and grabbed their phones to Google the word “squab.” Defined as a young domestic pigeon typically less than four weeks old, it’s not an item you’d find on many Fort Worth menus.

The large countdown clock was reset to 25 minutes. As the time began ticking away, what transpired could best be described as cool chaos. Each chef seemed to be in his/her element, totally focused, despite hundreds of onlooking fans.

Working alongside his sous chef, Brian Perry, who happens to be Venutolo’s father-in-law, the duo prepared a grilled herbed squab over charred poblano grits topped with roasted cherry tomatoes and baby shiitake mushrooms. A cornmeal-crusted fried snapper with root vegetable medley, wilted arugula and lemon dill beurre blanc sauce accompanied his prepared bird. The judges were consistent in their comments about the perfectly prepared squab. “If anyone has ever had squab before, medium rare is ideal. And the temperature of this dish is perfect,” Bonnell said. Just before removing the plates to make room for dish No. 2, Bonnell said, “Don’t fill up guys, we’ve got four more to go.”

Merritt worked seamlessly with his sous chef, Cadie Hatter. He decided to do a play on paella by making an heirloom tomato sofrito. Merritt then added the liver and hearts of the squab to the rice mix. To elevate the plate presentation, he deconstructed the paella by cooking the fish and squab separately. Garnishes on the plate included a blood orange aioli and a cold shaved fennel and dragon fruit salad. It was clear by the judges’ comments that this was the dish of the night. They each complimented the perfect preparation of the fish and the squab, as well as his genius use of seasonings and fresh herbs.

When Chef Martinez’s plate arrived at the judges’ table, it was the presentation that really wowed them. “Was this plated by Van Gogh? It’s absolutely gorgeous,” Byrd said. Bonnell called the dish “artwork on a plate.” Impressed by the crispiness that Martinez and his sous chef, Carol Ann Kroehler, were able to accomplish on the skin of his proteins, they were blown away once they discovered that Martinez had managed to make gnocchi in 25 minutes. The consensus about the seasoning of the dish was split. While two judges said the flavors were dead-on, another judge thought the dish was a little bland.

It was Denise Shavandy’s mashed potatoes with fresh herbs that won the judges over. With Sous Chef Christopher Brockington (Brock), Shavandy’s plate was made up of pan-roasted squab and seared redfish with charred tomatillo butter, buttermilk dill mashed purple potatoes, braised fennel and Campari tomato salad. Unfortunately, what cost her some points were her presentation and lack of seasoning on certain elements of her dish. Described by judges as a “muddled” display, the aesthetics of the plate didn’t compare to those of her competitors. Mitchell thought there were elements that had the “wow” factor. “I like the fresh basil and seasonings and the crispiness of the fish,” he said. Rishel described Shavandy’s potatoes as a “different version of Mom’s twice-baked potatoes,” and Bonnell asked if he could get a doggy bag.

Once the last bite had been taken and the dishes were cleared away, the judges convened in a back room to tally their scores as the chefs cleaned their cook stations.

It was the moment of truth. First, the judges informed that Venutolo had won the People’s Choice Award. When they next announced Merritt’s name as the Top Chef winner, a cacophony of cheers broke. Cameras flashed and Sweet Home Alabama blared as the humbled Merritt took his place center stage to raise the cutting board trophy with meat fork and carving knife above his head. In his acceptance speech, Merritt pointed across the room to Rishel and said, “Stefon, you don’t know this, but you’re my idol. I had planned on dyeing my mustache today.”

After things had simmered down, Merritt shared, “The most exciting thing about the competition was being declared the winner. I feel the most challenging part of the competition was staying on top of my time management. Time can get away from you very quickly if you aren’t organized.” For one year, the title of Top Chef in Fort Worth and the prestige that accompanies it belong to him.