A Look Back at the Top Chef Masters Challenge

Top Chef Masters

Fort Worth Magazine Top Chef winners from years past competed in a fierce kitchen battle in the Stockyards.

Guests stampeded through the doors at River Ranch on Jan. 25, hungry to watch the first-ever Fort Worth magazine Top Chef Masters challenge. Scott Murray, former Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist and television sports anchor, emceed the event. Judie Byrd was a special guest and acted as a spirited co-host. She has been contributing her culinary prowess to Fort Worth 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.

During the show, guests indulged in bites from Avanti Fort Worth, Fixture - Kitchen and Social Lounge, INVITE Events & Culinary, Piranha Killer Sushi, Rio Mambo, Enchiladas Ole, Nothing Bundt Cakes and River Ranch Stockyards Catering.
Once the burners had cooled and the smoke had cleared, Ben Merritt, executive chef of Fixture – Kitchen and Social Lounge, claimed his title as Top Chef Masters Champion. His fellow competitors looked on and cheered as Merritt was presented with the trophy – a heavyweight wrestling belt.

Competing Chefs. Chef Blaine Staniford (Top Chef winner, 2012) of Grace started training for his career as a chef at age 17 and was one of the youngest students to graduate from The Culinary Institute of America. Guests at Grace enjoy his fresh and seasonal dishes, where he emphasizes the natural flavors of the food.
Chef Donatella Trotti (Top Chef winner, 2010) of Nonna Tata grew up in Varese, Italy, and her cooking was most influenced by her mother and grandmother. Her restaurant, Nonna Tata, may be small in size, but it is busting at the seams in popularity. Patrons regularly bring their own table and chairs to the restaurant just to get a taste of Trotti’s creations.

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Todd Phillips (Top Chef winner, 2014) has more than 24 years of experience. He has served as the executive chef at J.R.’s Steak and 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.

Chef Merritt (Top Chef winner, 2016) developed a passion for cooking during his travels in the U.S. Navy. Throughout his career, Merritt has worked alongside several of America’s prestigious chefs, including Chef Stephan Pyles. Currently Merritt is the executive chef of Fixture – Kitchen and Social Lounge, where he delivers his guests 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.

Expert Palates. In recent years, head judge Jon Bonnell graced our 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 Fine Coastal Cuisine, and TCU sports bar, Buffalo Bros. 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.

It’s easy tospot 2015 Top Chef winner, Stefon Rishel; just look for his signature mohawk. For this occasion, he went with neon blue. 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 works at Texas Bleu in Keller as executive chef. 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, Best Brunch in Fort Worth 2014 and 2015 in Fort Worth Magazine’s Best Of issue.

With 20 years of culinary experience, Anthony Felli (Top Chef winner, 2013) still has a penchant for simple, well-prepared dishes. Felli has participated in many of the Top Chef competitions, both as a judge and a competitor. After many years at the helm of Del Frisco’s, he has made a move to Waters Fine Coastal Cuisine at its new location in downtown Fort Worth.

Carol Ritchie has graced our judges’ panel in previous years and has been sharing her cooking tips and recipes for more than 20 years as a traveling cooking instructor. Her half-hour cable television cooking show, “Cookin’ With Carol,” was a 2001 James Beard Award Nominee for best local television cooking show. Notable guests include Julia Child, Martin Yan and Jacques Pepin. Carol is also a recipe developer, culinary consultant, and spokesperson, appearing on national television including CBS’s “Chef on a Shoestring,” PBS’s “Healthweek,” QVC Shopping Network, and Food Network’s “Cooking Live!”.

Kitchen Battleground. The first challenge for the chefs tested their tasting abilities in detecting flavor components within a sauce presented by Bonnell. Samples of the sauce were passed out among those in the audience so they could guess for themselves. As a single elimination event, the chefs looked panicked as they tasted the sauce again and again, trying to single out what had gone into it. Merritt won by guessing two ingredients correctly.
Throughout the evening, the audience texted their votes for their favorite chef. Fans could vote up to five times, and in the case of tied results, votes would have been used to determine a winner. Phillips had a large fan base in attendance and won the People’s Choice Award by a landslide.
The Dream Meal Auction afforded a few lucky winners the chance for a Top Chef Masters finalist to come to their home and prepare a full meal for eight or a “chef’s table” dinner with wine pairings for eight at the chef’s restaurant. Another live auction gave four lucky audience members the fifth plate prepared by each chef, allowing them to experience what the judges had tasted. A portion of the proceeds goes to benefit the chefs’ chosen charities.

Next the chefs were challenged to additional culinary skills tests and activities leading up to the main event. Each chef had 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.

When it was time to reveal the secret ingredients, Bonnell presented the chefs with crab and duck. The large countdown clock was set 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.
Staniford’s creative plate for the evening’s judging included a spice-crusted duck breast with Dungeness crab couscous, tzatziki sauce, sweet and sour eggplant and coconut curry emulsion. The judges left little on their plates and commented on the colorful presentation. Trotti’s dish was ambitious with a homemade pasta, which didn’t go unnoticed by all four judges. They said her portion was appropriate, the duck was cooked to perfection, and the presentation was exquisite. The judges loved the grilled flavor of Phillips’ duck and thought his presentation was clean and simple. Merritt provided the judges a dish of Dungeness crab enchilada with a poblano cream sauce, Heirloom tomato salsa and duck chicharrones. A judge commented that they were all members of the “clean plate society” after finishing Merritt’s dish.

Final scorecards were tallied, leaving only a four-point difference between the winning chef and the runner-up. Just as he did in last year’s Top Chef challenge, Merritt walked away the champ.

Q. How did you prepare for the competition?
A. I spent time on the line at my restaurant working the different stations and pushing myself to work fast. Mentally, I psyched myself into thinking I was doing a stage (a French term for working in another chef’s kitchen), and this was a job interview.

Q. You’ve competed in this event in the past; how was this year different?
A. Every chef on stage has been here before and has won. These are the best chefs in Tarrant County.

Q. What were your initial thoughts when you heard the secret ingredients?
A. They have always done a surf and turf in the past, so I tried to think of what items they might throw at us. When I saw it was duck and crab, my mind immediately tried to figure out how I was going to use the crab. Once I figured the best thing for me to make was a Dungeness crab enchilada in the short amount of time we had, then the next step was how to incorporate the duck into the dish. Thankfully, we had whole ducks and weren’t limited to just the breast. Ducks contain a great amount of fat in their skin, so I wanted to render out as much as I could to heat my tortillas for the enchiladas in. Also, I wanted to add a crunchy component to the dish since the crab enchilada is so soft, so I rendered out all the fat from the duck skin to make chicharrones.

Q. What was the most memorable moment from the competition?
A. It was when they introduced all the chefs, and we went up on the stage for the first time. I saw how many people were in the crowd there to support the Fort Worth food scene.

Q. How did you celebrate?
A. I celebrated with my favorite cocktail, the Fitzgerald. Then I took the weekend off to decompress and spend time with my family. Now I’m back and ready to cook for the great city.