With critique like “this dish was so great and weird and wrong,” or just “dump truck salt” on those eggs, Round Three of the Citywide 86’d contest, on April 18th, was off and cooking with gas (and the microwave and a deep fryer…).
First some background on what Citywide 86’d is. If you’re familiar with the Food Network program Chopped you can skip ahead to the next paragraph. For the uninitiated the Citywide 86’d competition pits chefs from some of Austin’s most celebrated restaurants in each of four elimination rounds and one grand finale. April 18th marked the third of four preliminary, or elimination, rounds. Organizers call it a “friendly but heated competition.” Chef contestants are presented with mystery ingredients in brown paper bags and given about 20 minutes to cook an appetizer, entrée and finally dessert. They must use all the ingredients but can add other items like eggs, butter, veggies, sugar, etc.
The battle started brewing over three years ago, originally between chefs at Uchi and Uchiko, but now includes cooks from a number of Austinite’s favorite places to nosh. The winning chef from each of the four preliminary competitions will compete against one another in the June 15th finale.
Enough background. For those keeping score at home — the contestants in the April 18th third round were, Claire Helbig a cook who says she has no formal schooling, from Eden East, Devin Hesler of No Va Kitchen and Bar, who started cooking with his grandmother, Alex McCurdy, a line cook at La Condesa Austin and Josh Nkansah-adjei, a prep cook at Bess Bistro.
And the judges —- C.K. Chin, partner in restaurants Swift’s Attic and Wu Chow, Ryan Farnau, a freelance photographer and gardener, Brandon Watson, food editor for the Austin Chronicle, and Ben Schwartz, also a chef and winner of the Citywide 86’d competition in 2014.
The competition got underway at 10am sharp in the kitchens of Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, near the ACC Highland Mall campus, and was as much physical as culinary. The four chefs, dodged friends, family, judges and cooking school students as they maneuvered between steel cook tables, stoves, fryers and a yards long supply table chock full of extra ingredients. Items in the appetizer mystery bag included baloney, asparagus, green strawberries and Crickers Snack Crackers. The judges score the dishes on taste, presentation, difficulty and use of the special ingredients. The combo seemed to work best for Claire Helbig who combined the ingredients and added eggs. She was applauded by the four judges for remembering to “cook what you know.” Alex McCurdy fried the baloney and added potatoes, but in the end it didn’t quite cut the mustard and he was eliminated.
Then there were three – in the entrée round — chefs pulled lamb hearts, artichokes, snapdragon flowers and Hello Kitty bubble soda from their brown paper mystery bags. Judge Ryan Farnau called this “the hardest box I’ve seen in a while,” saying it took “technical execution to be successful.” The hearts, both lamb and artichoke, proved tough for all in the kitchen. In the end Claire Helbig again scored big. Josh Nkansah-adjei from Bess Bistro was asked to hang up his apron.
Life may be uncertain, but dessert is still last:
In the final dessert round, Devin Hesler and Claire Heilbig went head to head with some lovely yet challenging ingredients: baby fennel, cilantro flower, microwave habanero popcorn, and St. George gin. Devin presented the judges with something of a fried fritter. Claire created the dish that earned, what turned out to be a positive comment that we mentioned off the top, “so great and weird and wrong!” Frankly it looked kind of like a milk soup with popcorn floating in it. Claire explained that the “custard didn’t set.” That didn’t matter ‘cause what she described as, “hot milk foam …with … candied pop corn” must have tasted better than it looked. Judge Watson went on to say of the dish, “Sometimes (an) idea is so good it’s hard to even talk about it.” And with that Claire Helbig won the dessert challenge and this third round of the competition.
Claire Helbig from Eden East avoided being 86’d and now she’ll move on to the final round on June 15th. (The fourth round cook-off is May 2nd.) The overall winner of the Citywide 86’d competition will earn more than bragging rights. He or she will have the chance to “stage” or intern with some of the best chefs across the country. Tickets for the grand finale will go on sale shortly. You’ll be able to find them at www.citywide86d.com.
By Nancy Miller Barton
Photo Credit: Nancy Miller Barton