Let me immediately reveal my initial bias here. The Red Stag chefs just sort of ooze rock star. Forgive me for objectifying a bit, but they just look like they belong in a Tony Scott-directed movie about maverick chefs called Top Cleaver, or something. As long as I’m generalizing, the Deerfields chefs seem like they would fit the underdog bill quite nicely in said movie — which certainly says nothing of their looks. It’s just that they turn out their brand of cuisine in a retirement community, not a swanky resort restaurant practically bathed in leather. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — all I’m saying is that “retirement community” doesn’t exactly scream rock star Iron Chef. It whispers about prime rib on Tuesdays. It casually hints at taco night, right before bingo.
You know what they say about assumptions, don’t you?
Here’s how it all went down on Tuesday: The chefs were given the secret ingredient earlier in the day, and they labored to create and prepare three unique items utilizing that ingredient. Enter audience, stage left, several hours later. All of the judging for the contest was done by this group of 100, who blindly sampled a half dozen different dishes — three from each restaurant — which were served at random. This meant that no one knew which dish was coming from the Red Stag, which was coming from Deerfield. The restaurants are encouraged, before entering the competition, to “cook outside of the box,” so to speak, and are not allowed to turn out a signature dish that would help identify them.
This makes for great fun and a little mystery. Also, what ends up happening is that people like the food writer at the Mountain Xpress, just for example, think they know exactly who is cooking what. And say so. Because, you know, I know what’s up, people. Well, it turns out it’s not that simple.
Here’s the menu, in the order in which it was served on Tuesday, with notes on flavor and execution:
1. Quinoa salad with curry mayo and lavash points served with shallot jam, concasse tomato, and arugula: This dish was probably the boldest of the savory dishes, as far as use of coffee. It was a bold offering, in general. It was, visually, quite attractive. The quinoa salad, spiked with a decent amount of coffee — and not much else — was a bit, well, earthy, to say the least. The accompaniments were spot on, though, and saved the dish from tasting like soil salad with their acidity.
As an aside, the editor in chief of WNC Magazine did mention that quinoa reminded him of “baby toenail clippings,” which nearly made me shoot wine out of my nose. That might have compromised my image as a Very Serious Reporter.
2. Duo of coffee-encrusted duck breast with mushroom ragout and scallop with melon relish: This was my favorite savory dish of the night. It was served on a long plate, with two separate composed elements holding down either side. On the left was a perfectly cooked coffee-crusted duck breast, thinly sliced and draped over a very flavorful mushroom ragout. On the right, a scallop, perhaps too lightly crusted with coffee, served with a cooling melon relish and a chiffonade of what appeared to be mostly arugula and lemon verbena. The only thing I didn’t really understand was why my scallop was so flipping thin.
3. Coffee-braised bison short ribs on Swiss rosti and coffee-blackened scallop served with parsnip purée: This should have been better. It was almost very good. Most people around me preferred this dish to the one before it. I love those people dearly. But people, listen: you were quite possibly wrong. That’s just my professional opinion.
The coffee was nearly absent from my dish, and my scallop was over-salted by a long shot. However, it was cooked about as perfectly as a scallop can be cooked when plating for, oh, about 100 people. The short ribs could have been better if they were cooked for a bit longer, but the chefs only had so long to prepare. Parsnip puree? Delicious, but better if it were about 20 degrees cooler out. A little something green would have helped this primarily brown plate out, as well.
4. Coffee-smoked pork tenderloin with goat cheese risotto paired with pork belly: OK. Double-pork threat. Goat cheese risotto. Even the fresh vegetable garnish of cherry tomato and arugula to save it from being a sea of brown. What could go wrong?
I like to watch peoples’ faces when they eat. Everyone around me was so excited when that dish was plunked down in front of them that they looked like kids in an ice cream store. When those same people tasted their risotto? They looked just like kids that dropped that much-anticipated ice cream cone straight into a mud puddle. Shame about that risotto, because the pork belly and the tenderloin were fantastic. Really. Again, coffee was fairly subtle.
It was that risotto that really got us talking, though, about how challenging these competitions likely are on the chefs; who knows how long ago that risotto had been completed. The chefs can’t possibly know until the last minute at what time they will be plating. Which, hopefully, explains that gooey, gummy, major risotto fail.
5. Orange-spiced cake, coffee-encrusted truffle served over coffee-scented caramel: Pretty good. Lots of coffee, especially the grounds coating the “truffle.” I blamed this particular dish when I was staring wide-eyed and jittery at my bedroom ceiling at 2 a.m. that evening.
6. Coffee-chocolate pâté and coffee cinnamon Bavarian cream served in a Florentine cookie cup: This was a major highlight for me, and according to the people who tallied the audience votes, it was the high-scoring dish of the night. It was certainly pretty, with a little butterfly tuille cookie and a precious little cookie cup cradling that fantastic Bavarian cream. The coffee-chocolate pate was rich and fantastic.
Here’s the breakdown of who cooked the dishes, not revealed until the final votes were tallied:
3. Red Stag
4. Red Stag
5. Red Stag
It’s entirely possible that the fabulous gauntlet of a dessert dish that Deerfields threw down put them over the edge — they ended up beating team Red Stag by 400 points out of a possible 6,000. It’s worth pointing out that Deerfields gambled fairly heavily in order to make this dish shine. How? By chef Shackelford’s decision to bring pastry chef Zoe Davis as one of his two allowed team members. Gutsy, brilliant move. Rock star, even.
Suffice it to say, I was a little surprised and impressed by Deerfield’s beating of the Red Stag; I’d definitely guessed incorrectly several times when trying to gauge who cooked what dish. That’s really what makes this challenge so unique; you get to check and consider your own generalizations and preconceived notions when being served anonymous dishes. As WNC‘s Seeger pointed out in his blog wrap-up of the event, it really goes to show that nothing is certain in these challenges. I also hear that chef Shackelford of Deerfields has a long resume of fine dining experience from places around the world. He likely loves what he does, and working in a retirement community doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have an arsenal of food knowledge. Quite the contrary, it appears. Chef Hayes of the Red Stag, by the way, is no slouch, either; his resume includes a couple of Exec chef positions and stints at Upstream, Mimosa Grill and restaurant Pastiche.
Part of the fun of the WNC Chefs Challenges is unleashing your inner food critic. WNC Magazine’s marketing and circulation manager, Ayana Dusenberry, said that she felt like Padma Lakshmi. You are given a score sheet, and invited to rip the dishes apart or sing their praises as you sample and discuss the food with your table.
Here’s only to hoping that the remaining secret ingredients are a bit less stimulating.
Team Deerfield. Photo by Halima Flynt.