Chefs Challenge 4: Tastes like Chicken
By Laura Huff of Carolinaepicurean.com
Chicken Challenge! It wasn’t so much about who blinked first, but who could come up with three winning dishes featuring the secret ingredient.
Chef Mauricio Abreu of Chef Mo’s Restaurant & Bar in Asheville and Chef Josh Monroe of Chef’s Table in Waynesville fought it out last night during the fourth challenge in round one of the WNC Chefs Challenge with the ubiquitous chicken as their secret ingredient. Not some esoteric Asian food or cactus apples, but chicken.
As a judge (which all diners are at these challenges), I thought to myself, these guys are going to have to be good to wow me with chicken.
Early in the day, all-natural Tanglewood Farms chickens were presented to chefs Abreu and Monroe and their teams. I wish I had been there to see their reactions and then the wheels turning! No recipes, notes, cell phones, or communication with anyone outside the kitchen is allowed, so it’s all on the chefs to plan three winning dishes in 30 minutes.
What’s the big deal? Any good chef should have a few pretty good chicken recipes ready to go at any time, right? The big deal is that each dish is ranked according to five categories: presentation (visual appeal, variety, and balance of colors), aroma (aromatic appeal, compliments of fragrance), condiments and enhancements (taste and selection of vegetables, sauce and other enhancements), originality (innovation, unexpectedness, uniqueness) and the big one, use of secret ingredient (incorporation, creativity, complements of flavor and color).
Putting together a beautiful dish is one thing; putting together 65 of those dishes at essentially the same time, plated as identically as possible and all served hot, is another. More than one chef has been schooled, even seasoned competitors, during these competitions, especially if they haven’t had catering experience.
Each seat at host restaurant Cucina24 was set with a bottle of Jana “Natural European Artisan Water.” Nice. My wine for the evening was a 2009 St. George California Cabernet Sauvignon, Select Reserve.
Dishes are served in random order and rated by diners without knowing which chef prepared them.
The first dish out of the kitchen was chicken drummettes with an ancho-hibiscus reduction flanked by a crispy, seasoned, julienned cucumber that had a little kick and small curls of julienned carrots. I’d love to know how they did that with the carrots. The best part of this dish was the chicken drummette, which was crispy and flavorful on the outside, and moist and tender inside, along with the sauce.
Next was my favorite presentation: chicken wing lollipop, arugula and microgreen salad with pomegranate balsamic reduction, garnished with crumbled Gorgonzola and parmesan crisp. The tasty fried “lollipop” coated in a lovely breading was held in an upright position by strategically placed crumbled Gorgonzola. I was hoping for an “opposites attract” sweet and sour pairing of the Gorgonzola and balsamic reduction, but it didn’t quite work. I blame the pomegranate. The parmesan crisp, on the other hand, tasted great.
Crispy chicken bacon shrimp over fennel hearts with a honey-ginger-orange vinaigrette followed the lollipop. It was so interesting that it got my vote for most surprising flavor. Biting into the breaded shrimp first brought the flavor of chicken, followed closely by shrimp. Chef Abreu fried chicken skin, and then broke it up and added it to the breading. The fennel had more of a kick than I was expecting and the swoosh of vinaigrette on the plate was milder than expected, but both worked well with the shrimp.
The next offering, fettuccini chicken marsala, oyster and shiitake mushrooms, Vidalia onions and butternut squash, garnished with microgreens and lavash, instigated a marsala-or-masala discussion. Some of us thought we detected curry, leading to the thinking that this dish was an Indian masala. Others said it was made with cumin and marsala wine. The latter opinion was correct.
The mushrooms were terrific, complimenting the breaded chicken wonderfully. Some felt this dish lacked a depth of flavor, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Chef Monroe later said he made the super thin bread sticks that were placed delicately on top of the fettuccine. I’m thinking that’s what’s being referred to as lavash in the dish title, although lavash is an Armenian flatbread or cracker that starts out soft, but hardens quickly.
Fontina, swiss chard, and pancetta-stuffed chicken breast, fingerling potatoes, crispy asparagus, fried onion stacks resting on a chicken stock reduction followed. It had a pleasing presentation with perfectly cooked asparagus and a mild stock reduction, but the flavorful Swiss chard almost stole the show on this one.
And finally an orange-paprika-cocoa pork and chicken roulade, Mediterranean ragout served on a smoked tomato reduction. This dish had the most richly flavored sauce, which served well as a counterpart to the sweetish Ragout. I didn’t get much orange, paprika or cocoa from the roulade, although it was pleasing to the eye.
The winner by 9 percent or 680 points, was Chef Monroe and his team. Even more impressive was that both his assistants backed out of the competition Saturday evening. That’s two days before competing. Chef’s wife, Jenn Monroe, and Brennan Martin came to the rescue. When asked if he was going to go to Disney World after winning, Monroe replied, “I’m going to The Bier Garden.”
Assisting Chef Abreu were Drew Labath and Bric Friesland.
The Tanglewood Farms chicken was provided by Blue Water Seafood Co. I know. Sounds funny, but hey, thanks Blue Water for bringing such a quality secret ingredient to the table.
This was a fun event full of good food, drink, and camaraderie. If you haven’t been to a Chefs Challenge yet, there’s still time to sign up for one of the 10 remaining competitions. Or, head to the Asheville Wine and Food Festival on August 13, when the Chefs Challenge Finale will take place.
Team Chef’s Table
Chef Josh Monroe, Jenn Monroe, and Brennan Martin
-Chicken wind lollipop, arugula and microgreen salad with pomegranate balsamic reduction, garnished with crumbled gorgonzola and parmesan crisp
-Fettuccini chicken marsala, oyster and shiitake mushrooms, Vidalia onions and butternut squash, garnished with microgreens and lavash
-Fontina, Swiss chard, and pancetta-stuffed chicken breast, fingerling potatoes, crispy asparagus, beets, and chicken stock reduction
Team Chef Mo’s
Chef Maurico Abreu, Drew Labath, and Bric Friesland
-Chicken drummettes with ancho-hibiscus reduction
-Crispy chicken bacon, shrimp over fennel hearts, and honey-ginger-orange vinaigrette
-Orange-paprika-cocoa pork and chicken roulade, Mediterranean Ragout and smoked tomato reduction
Laura Huff is the author of www.carolinaepicurean.com.