Even 10 chefs can’t spoil a broth Terry Kirts With Karl Benko's quail and duck tart, things took a turn toward the bold. With the proliferation of TV culinary competitions like Hell’s Kitchen and Top Chef, as well as reality shows like Rocco DiSpirito’s The Restaurant, one might assume the restaurant life involves constant high-stress rivalry and one-upmanship. After all the crashing plates, shouting and stony sidelong glances cast across prep counters, you’d think restaurant kitchens were the most high-stress workplaces on the planet. What kind of hardened egomaniacs would put their colleagues through such treatment in the pursuit of the perfect dish? To see 10 of Indy’s hottest chefs gather before the Second Chef’s Alliance dinner on April 30, however, was to see a different show altogether. Standing in their kitchen whites along the railing of the Oceanaire’s spiffy upper dining deck, these amiable folks could hardly be mistaken for callous, calculating professionals jockeying for position. In fact, they seemed a little awkward in the limelight, distracted by their dishes for the night, taking comfort in the camaraderie of their fellow chefs. Almost as soon as they were introduced, they trooped back downstairs to work on a great meal. So it was that over 70 lucky diners got to sample dish after dish from these creative cooks who’d donated their evenings to support the Riley Children’s Foundation. When polled, the crowd seemed well aware of services only Riley Children’s Hospital offers its patients. A good portion had known a child treated at Riley. But while this worthwhile charity was the inspiration for the evening, it was clear food would take center stage. That the event sold out so quickly was as much a testament to the growing ranks of enthusiastic foodies in Indianapolis as to the generosity of Hoosiers. Having been in almost all of these chefs’ restaurants, I was eager to see what they’d do with more freedom and the certainty of daring palates. Chef Scott Mole, representing the Columbia Club, and his fellow Chef Greg Carroll started things off with an interesting fusion dish. A medallion of pink swordfish came lightly seared with a clean gazpacho of cucumbers and just a bit of heat and sweetness from a curry sauce laced with coconut. Shaved pickled radishes added a cooling contrast to the piquant swordfish. Next came that duo of Massachusetts Avenue chefs who have led the way in sourcing local ingredients and serving eccentric menus of seasonal eats. Chef Greg Hardesty, now devoting his attention entirely to his elegant eatery Elements, offered a chop salad of spring vegetables that was a study of crunchy textures and vegetable blanching techniques. While the dressing for his crisp veggies was achingly subtle, his dish followed nicely from the swordfish. R Bistro’s Regina Mehallick then cut the lingering chill of winter with a mini shepherd’s pie. Whereas this Irish dish is too often a leaden affair — sometimes even topped with cheese — hers was a light treatment allowing us actually to taste the organic turkey inside. Rounding out a trio of light, pristine dishes was veteran Tony Hanslits, who is hitting his stride these days at 14 West. At first, his brie and prosciutto dumpling didn’t seem that exciting, nothing you’d get the camera out for. But a couple of bites into this lightest of dishes, and you got salty hints of the prosciutto and the richness of the brie. Then you tasted the broth, a broth so good one member of our table requested a straw, which a waiter promptly brought him. With Karl Benko’s quail and duck tart, things took a turn toward the bold. Atop a surprisingly light but crisp tart shell flavored with curry, Benko placed a creamy puree of Capriole goat cheese with earthy parsnips. Both a slightly pink cut of quail and what was more a duck sausage than duck confit completed the presentation, along with a tangy-sweet gastrique, a reduction sauce flavored with port and dates. It provided the kind of striking flavors you’d expect from the rich dishes he puts together at Peterson’s. Globetrotting Ryan Nelson, who went to Thailand last year and is in Brussels right now, then showed his skill for pairing strong, unusual ingredients. Most often it’s some sort of offal — veal sweetbreads or halibut cheeks — with another uncommon ingredient like sea beans or fiddlehead ferns. This time, salmon belly, despite being quite rich, lent its silken texture nicely to a generous pile of sautéed morels, dusted with fennel pollen and sorrel leaves. This was clearly the output of a talented, gracious chef who, despite the Oceanaire’s corporate identity, has made his place every bit a generous local eatery. The evening ended with not one but two desserts, the first under the guise of a salad. Eli and Nicole Anderson, now proprietors of H20 Restaurant & Sushi, clearly played on Nicole’s pastry experience in an elegantly tart toss of strawberries and poached rhubarb with a crunchy shortcake flavored with almonds. A restrained, lightly sweet scoop of basil ice cream was a green hue you’d want for your living room walls. A more conventional but no less spectacular dessert came from Taste Café and Marketplace’s chef-owners, Marc Urwand and Deidra Henry, the latter having just won the rights to call herself Indy’s Ultimate Chef. Their bittersweet chocolate coda, in the form of a pot de crème with berries and pistachio biscotti, was an appropriate finale for such an amicable meal in which no chef took top billing and only the guests — and a great local charity — won with a tasty summation of Indy’s finest kitchen talent.

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