Poached shrimp with white seaweed, braised chicken tacos, bacon and blue cheese-stuffed mushrooms and smoked bacon-wrapped scallops welcomed more than 200 hungry guests as they moved throughout Texas Appliance Hurst on Wednesday, May 4, for the Top Chef Preliminaries. This year’s preliminaries turned into a de facto battle of the sexes as three men and three women competed for four spots in the Top Chef Finals. The formidable competitors were Erin Miller, Texas Bleu; Kalen Morgenstern, formerly of FW Market + Table; Ben Merritt, Fixture – Kitchen and Social Lounge; Derek Venutolo, The Capital Grille; Kevin Martinez, Tokyo Café; and Denise Shavandy, Café Modern.
Radio personality and Emmy Award-winner Scott Murray emceed the event and introduced judges and chefs as anticipation built. Chef Jon Bonnell was the head judge again this year. His love for the competition showcased in every challenge he put in front of the contestants.
Bonnell quickly tested the chefs’ speed and basic skills. “It’s gonna be blades a’ flyin,” Bonnell warned.
Newcomer Kevin Martinez immediately shined, coming in first in the “chopping contest” where chefs were asked to dice “the trio” – carrots, onions and celery. The second skills test took things up a notch as the six chefs were asked to shuck 10 oysters and break down and deshell a lobster. The challenge was well-suited for Ben Merritt who came in first with an almost perfect score.
After the warm up, it was time to move on to the main event. In two heats, the chefs competed making dishes with the secret ingredient, rack of lamb, with only 25 minutes of time allotted.
The luckiest people in the room were the judges who got to taste test each dish. Along with Head Judge Jon Bonnell were Carol Ritchie, a 2001 James Beard Award Nominee; Chef Todd Phillips, champion of Fort Worth, Texas magazine’s Top Chef 2014 and executive chef of J.R.’s Steakhouse; and Chef Pete Nolasco, owner of Chef Pete® Catering and Ice Carving in Dallas.
Kevin Martinez kicked things off with his Frenched rack of lamb with potatoes confit, a soft-boiled egg, pine nuts and a cream sauce. Bonnell said his lamb was “Frenched down to perfection,” adding “if this is just the tip of the iceberg, we’re in for a real treat tonight.”
Erin Miller, who had to cook with one hand after an injury in the middle of the competition, managed to put together a plate that impressed with a large portion of lamb, mushrooms and sautéed vegetables. Judges regaled at the rustic dish.
Kalen Mortgenstern made a pretty and tropical grilled lamb summer salad. The lamb earned her kudos with the judges. “The main ingredient is seasoned absolutely perfectly,” Bonnell said.
Chef Ben Merritt was the only chef to earn perfect points for presentation. This was thanks to his grilled lamb chop on a warm Mediterranean confit potato salad with a fresh-thyme ricotta. The judges exclaimed that it was both classic and perfectly cooked.
It was clear that Derek Venutolo’s dish, his take on the “carpetbagger” (a luxury steak recipe), impressed thanks to its complexity. Unable to make a béarnaise – the traditional sauce in a carpetbagger - with the ingredients provided, he made a hollandaise. That feat earned him the highest score of the night.
The secret ingredient threw many of the chefs a curveball. But, Denise Shavandy’s plate shined, thanks to her experience with the protein. The judges were wowed that she was able to grill an artichoke and get it on the plate in the short amount of time the chefs had to cook. She topped her lamb off with a pomegranate sauce and potatoes.
In the end, only four chefs could move on. “This was the closest score that I have seen,” Bonnell said. And we were sadly forced to say goodbye to Erin Miller and Kalen Morgenstern for Top Chef 2016.