By: Gail Bennison
Just as professional athletes who rely on their years of training when they are facing down an opponent, the culinary heavyweights in the Fort Worth, Texas magazine 2012 Top Chef final were primed and ready to perform when it mattered most. They all had the ability to get in the zone, tune out all distractions and keep their eye on the prize (which in this case happened to be a gleaming chef’s knife and carving fork mounted to a hefty cutting board). In order to win gold, our chefs would have to rely on their training and trust their instincts from start to finish. The final round took place on Aug. 2 at the popular Cendera Center, 3600 Benbrook
Highway. Guests enjoyed the competition, as well as heavy hors d’oeuvres, a full bar and lively music.
Scott Murray served once again as host. Murray spent 30 years with NBC as a multi-Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist and television sports anchor. Since retiring as NBC sports anchor, Scott has become a published author and, with his son, founded Murray Media, a video television production company. He is the host of FYI Fort Worth, the monthly television magazine show of Fort Worth, Texas magazine.
Known for his interesting compositions, Chef Blaine Staniford of Grace Restaurant made his third trip to the final round. After taking top honors at our Preliminary Round, his confidence was high. He has a new favorite ingredient that is both fun and flavorful. He said, “I like using basil seeds right now; I hydrate them with basil water, and they bloom into kind of a basil caviar. Pretty cool!”
Likewise, Chef Eric Hunter of Fire Oak Grill in Weatherford is a veteran, making his way to the finals once again. Hunter said, “It has become somewhat taboo over the past few years,” but he admits to craving foie gras. Hunter helped his friend Chef Tim Love win Iron Chef America back in 2007. A two-time finalist in our competition, he was ready to take home a trophy of his own.
From Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, Chef Anthony Felli came prepared to battle. He loves to incorporate his favorite herb, thyme, into dishes and said, “Fresh or dry, this herb offers tremendous flavor to a variety of styles of cuisine. I use it every day.” These days Felli finds himself using his iron skillet more and more and appreciates the way the heat transfers to and from the metal.
Chef Charles Youts of The Classic Cafe in Roanoke drew moral support from his loyal and vocal fan base throughout the event. He is a big fan of local honey saying, “It’s a healthier option for sweetening, plus it infuses wild, natural flavors into the entire menu.” Youts was inspired by a recent driving trip on Route 66 through Oklahoma. “We stopped at The Rock Café in Stroud and had garlic spaetzle with Jagerschnitzel that I’m still trying to recreate,” he says.
Let the Games Begin
After introducing our talented chefs on stage, head judge Chef Tim Love began the competition with an excruciating challenge that he dreamed up to test their skills. He warned them: “Grab your knives, and let’s get started.”
The skills challenge consisted of three different parts. First, the chefs would have to dice a white onion, quickly and uniformly, to Love’s satisfaction. Then, they would need to cut a whole duck into its parts. Finally, using one pound of butter each, the contestants were to whisk together a classic beurre blanc sauce that would not separate upon standing.
Each of these kitchen skills would earn its winner five points, and the winner of all three skills would merit an additional 15 points. With the exception of Youts, who was a first-time finalist, all the other finalists have been here before, so they knew just how crucial racking up those initial points could be to their overall score.
They had their game faces on. None of them even attempted a nervous smile to the large audience looking on with anticipation. What audience? They were completely focused on their instructions and set to grab their chef’s knife and begin dicing when they got the call that time started.
And they were off, peeling and dicing perfect restaurant-style cubes of onion. It doesn’t sound like much of a challenge for professionals at this level, but let’s remember on a day-to-day basis, dicing onions is left to their sous chefs, and basic skills could get a little rusty. Add to that the glaring spotlights, watering eyes and cheering fans, and you could feel the pressure. Felli was first to the wall, collecting his five points. The rest took a deep breath and kept on chopping.
All contestants prepared their ducks at world-record paces. The duck would become seven prepared pieces, including breasts, wings, thighs and carcass. Love held up the pieces for the audience to appreciate while inspecting the quality of their work. Staniford crossed the finish line first, collecting his five points and moving on to his final skill challenge.
They were all on autopilot, cruising into their preparation of the perfect beurre blanc sauce. The hard part about making this simple sauce with only two key ingredients, butter and white wine, (actually Love was hoping someone would add a dash of salt for flavoring) is in the constant whisking that is required. With the pound of butter melted in the saucepan, it naturally wants to separate the liquid (drawn butter portion) from the milk solids (that typically rise to the top). In a beurre blanc, it is up to the chef’s muscle to make sure that does not happen. If the chef incorporates the white wine too soon, the mixture will separate. All succeeded, but none could run down Staniford in the end. So after the frantic skills challenge, Felli had five points and Staniford held an amazing lead of 25 points.
The next challenge proved to be very fast. Love announced that in this year’s taste test, (where he presented the finalists with a unique sauce and asked them to pick out individual ingredients) it was a single elimination event. The chefs looked panicked as they tasted the concoction again and again trying to single out what had gone in it. Love had prepared a puree of salsify, which is a not-so-common root vegetable.
Youts was first to guess an ingredient. He chose safely and tactically with his guess of salt and remained in the round. Then disaster struck. One by one, all three of his challengers guessed incorrectly. They guessed garbanzo beans, celery root and roasted garlic, which were all tempting choices due to the thick consistency of the puree. They were all out. Youts won by default and collected his 20 points.
Our panel of judges included chief judge Chef Tim Love, who is chef proprietor of Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, the Love Shack and the new Woodshed Smokehouse serving up both traditional as well as “New Q” on the banks of the Trinity. He is a Food Network’s Iron Chef winner as well as the Bravo Channel’s Top Chef Masters contestant and has served as a Top Chef judge.
Judie Byrd is the food editor for Fort Worth, Texas magazine. Her passion to teach people to cook started with a class for moms in her home kitchen and blossomed into what is now The Culinary School of Fort Worth, a licensed chef school. She’s the host of Judie Byrd’s Kitchen, seen daily on FamilyNet Cable TV. Byrd is also author of several cookbooks, including Help! My Family’s Hungry, Meals in Minutes and Everyday Family Recipes.
Since 1992, Carol Ritchie has been delighting local cable television viewers in Arlington, sharing her cooking tips and recipes on a half-hour cooking show called Cookin’ with Carol. Her recipes are available in five self-published cookbooks, each based on a season of cooking shows. In addition to her television appearances, Carol is a culinary consultant and recipe developer and teaches cooking classes in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
Audience members recognized Teresa Frosini from CBS 11 News. She has an extensive background in public speaking, training and development and executive sales management. She has been the traffic anchor at CBS 11 since 2006. Frosini has drawn a new assignment now. She will report on arts and entertainment as well as doing special reports.
Time to Execute
It was finally time for the cooking challenge. The finalists were all given an interesting shelf of ingredients to choose from with ingredients such as acorn squash, basil and thyme, arugula, pecans and cornmeal. Love then held up a shiny silver dory by its tail, which was the secret ingredient that each had to incorporate in his final plating. But, before starting their 25-minute cooking period, he threw them one more curve, holding up a fresh coconut that also needed to find its way into the dish.
Staniford sautéed mushroom, corn and fresh thyme leaves in his coconut water before adding cornmeal to the mixture, creating a delicate polenta. He tossed in some fresh arugula, bringing out their peppery notes before plating his dish by grating fresh coconut over the top.
Judge Ritchie liked the fact that you could see the grain of the fish and thought the cherry tomatoes popped on the plate. “The tomatoes have a good bite and are not overcooked,” said Byrd. And Love enjoyed the corn mixture, but noted that he really couldn’t pick up any real coconut flavor in the dish.
Felli began by dicing peaches and sautéing them with shallots in fresh coconut water. He peeled and crushed garlic cloves. Then he used a grating plane to grate fresh coconut meat and then toasted it in the oven, bringing out a crispy texture and nutty flavor. Finally, he fried a bit of the fish skin for garnish and crunch in his presentation.
Frosini loved the bite of pepper along with the sweet fruit of the peaches. Byrd made note of the creative fish skin crouton used for garnish. “It is really well done,” Love said. “Using fish and fruit together are tough, but the fish is well-seasoned so it works.
Youts began with his sauce. He incorporated sautéed pecans into his cream-based sauce. He shaved thin slices of both yellow and zucchini squash and quickly blanched them before draping his rich pecan topping over the dory. Finally, he flash fried the egg sacks he found inside for a creative and salty garnish.
“While the polenta had plenty of cheese,” Byrd said, “I would have liked a little more salt.” Love enjoyed the texture the pecans added to the dish but thought it lacked an element of acid. Frosini loved the heavier quality of the plate and said, “It reminds me of a green bean casserole.”
Hunter planned a stacked presentation from the start, preparing a base of corn cakes, which he cut out neatly with a biscuit cutter. He spent his time seasoning and simmering his sauce, which was a beurre blanc with a hint of orange juice and small bits of coconut. He stacked the pan-seared dory on top of his corn cakes and drizzled sauce around the plate and over the top.
Richie was impressed by the stacked presentation and the garnish of fried basil leaves. All the judges loved the thicker filet of his dory and loved his sauce; they just wanted more of it on the plate. Love did taste some coconut and was pleased with the clean presentation. He especially noted the corn and bacon elements saying, “In the restaurant business, when you mess up a dish, we always say to put some corn and bacon on it and it will taste better.”
After lengthy deliberations, Chef Blaine Staniford of Grace Restaurant took home top honors in this year’s competition. He hoisted the trophy overhead in recognition of his accomplishment and accepted applause from the audience.
By: Gail Bennison