If the Food Network's two top-rated competition shows decided to set down in a nice Midwestern town, their spawn would have been the yearly Local Chef Challenge, which played out this weekend at the Mall of America. Some of the most talented toques were selected to go head to head with a box of secret and often odd ingredients. The competing chefs included Vincent Francoual of Vincent--A Restaurant (and last year's returning champion), Doug Flicker of Piccolo, Landon Schoenefeld of Haute Dish, Jim Kyndberg of Crave, Jack Riebel of Butcher and the Boar, Patrick Atanalian of Sanctuary, Christopher Thompson of Masu Sushi & Robata, and Jim Christiansen, most recently of Il Gatto. All were competing for the grand prize of $10,000.
In year's past the event was hosted by Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl. With her recent defection from Minnesota Monthly (the event's sponsor) to their main competition, it was curious to see how the event would play out without her.
The hosts were the staff of the newly christened TC Taste blog, Jason DeRusha of WCCO; chef Jason Ross, instructor at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school; and Stephanie Meyer, a food blogger for FreshTart.com and head of the Minnesota Food Blogger group. They were knowledgeable about all the ingredients and fun to watch.
In each round the competitors are given a basket of ingredients, plus a pantry and an hour to pull together a dish, using only one assistant--who they'd never worked with before--to assist.
Some of the mystery ingredients included buffalo liver, black licorice, and veal brains. When past winner Jack Riebel beat the other experienced winner, Vincent Francoual, on the first day's competition, it was clear Riebel came to win.
The semifinals were Riebel versus Schoenefeld in a battle of canned tuna, rainbow trout, ginger beer, and dandelion greens. Both dishes were visually stunning, but the battle seemed decided when, on the first bite, judge Meyer clearly got a few bones from Schoenefeld's dish.
The other semifinal round was between Flicker and Kyndberg. Their dishes utilized branzino, canned sardines, pumpkin seeds, and tamarind paste. Flicker's dish was a simple, lightly salted filet of the brazini with an avocado puree canele with a chefy swipe of tamarind sauce. Kyndberg's dish was an entree of brown rice noodles, lightly fried, skinless filets, and a few other embellishments. One dish was so simple yet elegant in appearance, and the other was so homey and inviting, it was hard to pick a winner. In the end the judges gave the title to Flicker.
The head-to-head battle was Flicker versus Riebel. Riebel was clearly pumped, game face on and full of energy, while Flicker maintained his Zen-like, deadly serious composure. The final dish was a dessert course using phyllo dough, dried blueberries, fresh Thai basil, and barley malt syrup. Riebel built napoleons with the phyllo sheets stacked with butter and bacon. Flicker's dessert was a floating island of meringue with grapefruit supremes in a barley malt syrup.
After a long deliberation, the judges awarded the giant check and stack of bragging rights to chef Doug Flicker of Piccolo.