Top Chef 2015

A sold-out crowd gathered at Cendera Center on July 21. It was time once again to cue the lights and music and crank up the fog machines for Top Chef 2015.

Like a page out of DC Comics, our four finalists cut through the haze, bounding onto the stage like super heroes, welcomed by the wild applause of fans and supporters. | photography by Alex Lepe and Carlos Lepe |

Super Heroes – The Cast of Characters In this epic showdown, the good guys (and gal – thanks to Chef Kalen Morgenstern) were played by our four awe-inspiring chefs. The villains were the two secret ingredients that had been chosen for them to use in battle. Always lurking in the shadows was a ticking clock, constantly reminding them how precious little time remained to vanquish that enemy.

Scott Murray, multiple Emmy Award winner, former televison anchor and owner of Murray Media, emceed the night and introduced our four finalists.

Jerrett Joslin is chef and owner of both The Wild Mushroom (now in Fort Worth) and The Vintage Grill and Car Museum in Weatherford. Joslin says, "The most important aspect of any dish is the freshness of the ingredients and the using correct amount of seasoning.” Currently he is inspired by some of fresh menus he has come across in both Nashville and New Orleans. He was one of the Top Five Chefs in Fort Worth, Texas magazine, has been named as one of the Top 5000 Chefs by Best Chefs America for the past three years running, and was named New Chef on the Rise by Savoy magazine. Joslin channeled his inner Superman as he took to the stage, ripping open his chef’s coat to reveal a “Fear the Beard” T-shirt.

Charles Youts is executive chef of The Classic Café in Roanoke. His menu is usually inspired by the chef's pantry garden, which is planted just behind his restaurant. He has also been named in Best Chefs America for 2013 through 2015. He serves as a chef mentor in the Byron Nelson High School Academy of Culinary Arts in its ProStart Competitions, which have gone to nationals for the past four years. Youts says, “I think one of the most underutilized ingredients is nutmeg. It’s in traditional holiday recipes, but not too many chefs experiment with it past that.” If he had not become a chef, he says he would probably have been a marine biologist. Chef Youts entered with his usual quiet confidence – more the mild-mannered reporter, just waiting to transform into his alter-ego.

Kalen Morgenstern is chef de cuisine at Tillman's Roadhouse (at the time of this writing). She is a culinary graduate of the Art Institute of Tennessee. She was actually a meat science minor and firmly believes in head to tail usage in her cooking. Morgenstern says, “I love to use every bit of the animal possible. I love making pâtés, head cheese, beef cheeks and lengua (beef tongue).” Morgenstern has been mentored by the likes of Josh Habiger at The Patterson House in Nashville, Brian Owenby and Nicholas Erickson at the Gaylord Opryland, Tim Love at The Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, and even Gordon Ramsay during her short stay on Season 13 in Hell's Kitchen. Chef Morgenstern commanded R-E-S-P-E-C-T as she entered to the Aretha Franklin classic.

Stefon Rishel is executive chef at Max’s Wine Dive. 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.” He says, “Every dish has to have balance. I believe that acid is just as important in a dish as salt.” A self-taught chef, Rishel 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, Best Brunch in Fort Worth 2014 and 2015 from Fort Worth, Texas magazine's Best Of issue. Chef Rishel looked the part with his mohawk, dyed red for the occasion, and pointing his finger passionately toward his crowd of mohawked fans.

Super Powers Revealed Our head judge was Chef Jon Bonnell. He is a graduate of the prestigious New England Culinary Institute. He is the Executive Chef/Owner of the Bonnell’s Restaurant Group, which includes his flagship restaurant, Bonnell’s, Fine Texas Cuisine, his newest restaurant, the highly acclaimed Waters, and the hottest sports bar in town, Buffalo Bros, Pizza Wings & Subs. He is also the Celebrity Chef of TCU’s Amon G. Carter Stadium. Jon is the author of three cookbooks: Jon Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine, Jon Bonnell’s Texas Favorites, and Jon Bonnell’s Waters Fine Coastal Cuisine. He is a husband and father of two, a favorite radio and TV personality both locally and nationally, a chef instructor, a wine instructor and even an accomplished Ironman triathlete.

Bonnell kicked things off with three very different skills challenges to test their powers of both palate and creativity. First he presented each with a secret sauce and explained it contained exactly 16 ingredients. They would take turns guessing them.

Youts picked up on Worcestershire sauce. Joslin zeroed in on ketchup. Rishel tasted brown sugar, and Morgenstern went safe and smart, guessing salt. Each continued licking their spoon and tasting as one by one they fell away until Rishel was the last man standing and began the night with a slight lead.

Next Bonnell handed out headsets and blindfolds. “You will not be able to see or hear for this next part,” he said. In the blind tasting, Bonnell presented each chef with five different ingredients to identify like parsnip, agave syrup, apricot and rice wine vinegar. He encouraged the crowd by saying, “You can make fun of them all you want, because they cannot hear or see a thing.”

The final skills challenge pitted the contestants against a dozen eggs. Bonnell gave them just eight minutes to compose the most creative egg dish they could muster. Morgenstern presented a soft boiled egg in a sautéed nest of greens. Rishel poached an egg and whipped together a quick Hollandaise sauce. Youts went with a perfect cheese omelet. Joslin did his take on egg three ways: poached with Beurre Blanc sauce, a four-minute soft boiled egg, and scrambled.

Every Super Hero needs a Side-Kick Bonnell allowed our finalists to bring along their sous chef of choice to aid during the 30-minute cooking challenge itself.

By Chef Morgenstern’s side was her trusted sous chef, Josh Tulley. The two have worked together for the past nine months. Tulley graduated from San Diego Culinary Institute. Morgenstern said, “He adds to my team in a very big way. He has a heart of gold, and he is super passionate about food and learning all there is to know. He is loyal and works hard! He strives to find his own creative edge in everything he does.”

Chef Charles Youts has a long history with his sous chef. “I am taking my son Bryce Youts. He has always been my sous chef, ever since he could stand,” said Youts. The father/son team have competed together in several Pro-Start Culinary Competitions in the past. “This will be the last time we get to cook like this for a long time,” said Youts. “Bryce graduated high school in May. He leaves for the Army on Aug. 17, and his dream is to become a ranger. These last couple months have been hard on me. So I am honored to cook beside him.”

Chef Stefon Rishel brought along a trusted friend, his lead line cook, Jorge Olvera. Rishel said, “Jorge was the first employee hired at Max’s Wine Dive. He has worked all over Latin America and the Metroplex.” The two have developed a seamless teamwork together. “Hands down, Jorge is the best cook I have ever worked alongside in my career,” he said.

Alongside Chef Jerrett Joslin was Jordan Walker, who serves as executive chef of The Wild Mushroom. He joined The Wild Mushroom after working with Tim Love at both Lonesome Dove and Queenies Steakhouse. With his seven years in the industry, he handles everything from inventory and menu costing to creation of the daily specials. Joslin said, “Jordan is a very skilled butcher and loves to work with all animals, whether they swim or run.”

Two Secret Ingredients Bonnell brought out a whole beef short loin from Burgundy Pasture Beef (which can be broken down into T-bone chops and strip loins). The contestants drew spoons to take turns carving their beef for the cooking challenge. Rishel went first, carving off a nice T-Bone. Youts took half of the tenderloin, as did Joslin. When it was Morgenstern’s turn, she just picked up the rest of the short loin and carted it back to her station. Bonnell was impressed, saying, “Well sometimes it pays to be last.”

The other secret ingredient that needed to be displayed prominently in the final dish was langostino. Bonnell described these beauties imported from New Zealand as, “a cross between lobster and shrimp with very delicate meat.” With that, the teams became perfectly focused and a flurry of activity began.

Youts began by making a batter for cheese pop-overs and pouring them into buttered molds to bake. He prepped his langostinos by shelling the tail meat and placing the shells in stock pot. He later used the shell stock in a rich sauce. His son Bryce busied himself prepping veggies like zucchini slices and cutting bell pepper discs with ring molds. He skewered them along with sliced yellow tomatoes and finished those skewers with a torch − adding additional color after baking them. Youts had his beef tenderloins sliced and marinated throughout, waiting until the last minute to grill his beef.

Joslin prepped slices of purple and yellow fingerling potatoes and fresh porcini mushrooms. Walker cleaned and peeled Brussels sprouts for a flawless presentation, along with displaying his knife skills julienning red pepper for a very fine dice as well as shallots in his preparation. Joslin seasoned and placed his tenderloin on a flaming hot grill before slicing his exceptionally rare beef just before plating.

Morgenstern was unflappable, even when the smoke from her station got chokingly thick for a time. She was constantly tasting every aspect of her dish. She began by placing oiled mushrooms in a saucepan and later switched them directly to the grill to add that smokiness she was after. Minced shallot and garlic went into a compound butter that would be used just prior to the clock running out. Tulley aided her with the stock to boil the langostinos. He filled it with lime halves, jalapeño slices, onion, carrot and rice. After a quick boil, the langostino was grilled and served shell on with tail exposed.

Rishel had his game face on and remained focused throughout. He too smoked his mushrooms on the grill and turned his attention early to a unique beef tartare element. Olivera prepared spinach and broccoli rabe side dishes as well as expertly cleaned and halved artichokes. Rishel began plating early with his cold salad topped with tartare, later adding his grilled steak stacked with a prominent display of langostino tail and topped with a grilled Portobello slice for a lovely presentation.

The Justice League Joining Head Judge Jon Bonnell were a few other notables in the industry who came prepared with glasses of both red and white wines in hand.

Nancy Farrar is the food columnist at Fort Worth, Texas magazine where she shares her favorite recipes with other home cooks. Nancy has served on the events committee for the Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival since its inception. She is an avid food blogger and serves on the board of Cancer Care Services. One of her little-known secrets is that she attended a casting call for a home cook competition show for The Food Network.

Our next judge is well seasoned in every respect. Judie Byrd is a cooking teacher, author and speaker. She has been a longtime contributor to Fort Worth, Texas magazine, sharing her recipes and entertaining tips. Judie is the author of several books including: Help! My Family’s Hungry, How to Make Any Occasion Special, Meals in Minutes, and Everyday Family Recipes. She is 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.

Finally, we welcome back our Top Chef 2013 champion, Anthony Felli. He has led the culinary team at Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House since being promoted to executive chef in 2008. He has also been recognized by Best Chefs America. Cooking dinner for his large family used to be one of his assigned chores around the house, one that helped him identify his career path. Chef Felli worked his way up through many different positions in a variety of restaurants, spanning from Central California to North Texas. Anthony Felli has more than 22 years of culinary experience.

Our Hero Unmasked Chef Youts plate came out first. Bonnell said, “Somebody went shopping in their pantry and got the right stuff on the plate.” He raved about the sauce and the reduction. Byrd thought the steak was cooked perfectly and noted that the sauce was not overpowering. She said, “You had me with the cheese popover.” Felli said, “I am not sure how they got all this done in that amount of time. God bless popovers and polenta.” Farrar loved the preparation of the langostino with its spicy notes. She said, “I love the use of fennel in this dish and that little bite on the back of the tongue.”

Rishel’s dish arrived at the judges’ table next. All were star-struck by the presentation and plating with a cold element on one side and the hot on the other. Felli said, “This plate is stunning, and the beef tartare is fantastic.” Byrd noticed wilted spinach under the tartare and loved the combination of flavors it provided. Farrar loved the dish and could not find anything to critique. All she could say was, “This truly is fine dining.” Bonnell commented on the tender langostino meat and the expert presentation of the beef both raw and grilled. He said, “Somebody really went deep in designing this one.”

Next up was Chef Morgenstern’s creation. Felli said, “These chefs have absolutely upped the game. A lot of people don’t know to cut meat on the bias and diagonally to maximize tenderness…but this chef did.” Byrd agreed, “The steak is juicy, and I love the compound butter.” Farrar added, “The rice is a nice combination with peppers and spices. The exposed langostino tail is dusted with chili spice too.” Bonnell loved the charred mushroom flavor in the dish. “Compound butter…Oh man! This presentation is over the top with a whole langostino − only removing the shell from the tail. That is where the money is.”

Finally, Chef Joslin’s plate made its way to the judges. Farrar loved the dish saying, “The langostino is just perfect. The fingerling potatoes have a heavy oniony flavor. This is just delicious.” Bonnell joined in to say, “You are right. This is the best flavor and texture of any langostino all night. I love this one served shell on and tail exposed too.” Byrd couldn’t put down her fork long enough to say anything besides how perfect it all was. Felli gushed over the plating and said, “This potato salad is phenomenal.”

During a brief intermission while the scorecards were being tabulated and a final decision was being made, Publisher Hal Brown took to the stage to introduce an auction dedicated to our final round chef’s charities of choice. Each contestant originally offered to auction off an in-home meal experience for eight people, but were so overwhelmed by the response of their supporters, halfway through the bidding, they all offered to do it twice and raise even more money.

Charles Youts offered up his time and talent to benefit Metroplex Meals on Wheels. Jerrett Joslin raised money for Cruising for a Cure. Kalen Morgenstern benefited H3R of DFW, which focuses on pet adoption and animal rescue. Stefon Rishel’s charity was The Miracle League DFW, affording children with disabilities the chance to play baseball on a standard field.

On behalf of Fort Worth, Texas magazine, Brown offered up the fifth plates that each contestant had prepared. After those plates were photographed for this issue of the magazine, the winning bidders got to taste the dishes. All proceeds from the Fifth Plate Auction were donated to Safe Haven, as were all the leftover food and produce from the contest.
The generous crowd raised more than $23,000, which will be divided up between five deserving charities.

When all was said and done, the title of Top Chef 2015 was announced, and Stefon Rishel of Max’s Wine Dive took home the trophy.

With cameras flashing and Jimi Hendrix wailing in the background, the humbled Rishel took his place center stage to raise the cutting board trophy for fans to see.