We crowded into the ballroom-size kitchen in Cerulean, shuffling closer together until a few elbows were touching, to watch four of Indy's most talented chefs do the one thing the dining community has always wanted to see: try to out-cook each other. Any other day, most of us would gladly pay forty bucks for the privilege of watching the Cerulean team cook and plate alone. Instead, we were treated to a head-to-head challenge between some of the best chefs at the most buzzed-about restaurants in town. The only thing missing was a Hoosier iteration of an overdressed, over-coiffed guy biting into a pepper (I'll take suggestions on this personality in the online comments).
Four of Indy's heaviest-hitting talents, Milktooth's Jonathan Brooks, Rook's Carlos Salazar, Plow & Anchor's John Adams and Cerulean's Alan Sternberg, gathered in Cerulean's kitchen for the simple joy of deciding who, at least for that night, is the best. The rest of the invitations went out to mostly food industry insiders, so the crowd watching the action happen was limited compared to other demos and pop-ups. Probably because Chef Throwdown is neither.
That was the other thing that set this apart from others: there was no food served for the guests. Well, technically, there were plates of raw oysters and platters of steamed lotus bun sandwiches, but the dishes being cooked were only supposed to be consumed by the judges. Two dishes per chef, and three palates to please. That's it, that's all.
So how much fun was a dining event with, essentially, no food? A lot of fun. Maybe the most fun I've yet had as a newly-minted member of the local food ecosystem between chefs and media. Because this time, the burden of opinion and judgement was not mine to bear, and the chefs were cooking for the judges and each other.
Instead, Grant Michael, the organizer of the event (and, by day, Sysco sales representative) wanted it to be a purely chef-centric occasion where the food would only be tasted and judged by established authorities who the chefs hand-picked to judge the contest. The hardest part, according to Michael, was "finding three people that [the chefs] respected enough to judge the contest." So the three judges ended up being a trio Indy's culinary tastemakers: Neal Brown, the James Beard semifinalist behind Pizzology and The Libertine; Layton Roberts, chef for the Cunningham group (Union 50, Mesh, Bru among others); and Neil Charles, once NUVO's food writer and now both a food writer for Sophisticated Living and proprietor of Knapsack Wines.
If you aren't aware of the general work ethic in kitchens, know the following: all the chefs except Brooks were cooking on their only day off. Brooks came to the competition after a full day of service that started before 7am (like it does every day for the owner of a breakfast and lunch joint). Sternberg only wanted to host the thing, but ended up being cajoled into joining the fun. After all, the only other time these chefs get to "compete" is in business, and each of them cooks wildy different foods with different service models.
And the prize? A very nice bottle of bourbon and bragging rights. But the only folks who got paid were the fine people of Second Helpings, who had one of their recent chef school graduates in attendance. And because we would all feel guilty having that much fun without giving back in some way, each of the chefs auctioned a gift card to their restaurant to bolster the fundraising potential of the event.
But let's not get it twisted. We were there to watch some major kitchen talent show off, and they certainly did. The necessary "twist" was a mystery basket of two ingredients that had to be incorporated into the two dishes each chef served. So, if you're keeping score at home, the rules are as follows: one hour, two dishes (to be served at any point during the hour), three judges, four chefs and two mystery ingredients. They turned out to be duck and rabbit, and each chef worked them into their dishes in a unique, signature way.
Salazar brought all of his Asian food experience to the table, making a Korean lettuce wrap and rare duck gizzards with roasted carrots and a nahm prik sauce — a pureed combination of a variety of grilled peppers and onions, finished with fish sauce. Salazar also prepared a tamarind broth made with the rabbit carcases, Swiss chard, shitake conserva finished with vinegar.
John Adams made duck breast with braised leeks, roasted sunchokes, Swiss chard, and a sage mustard jus for one dish. For the second, seared rabbit hearts with turnips, carrots, and a madeira sauce. Said Adams about the competition, "I wasn't feeling especially creative as it was my only day off this week, and so I just tried to make solid dishes that were well prepared and tasty."
Sternberg, with the home court advantage, made rice crusted rabbit leg with a tamari pistachio puree, frisee and pea shoot salad, as well as sou vide duck breast, carrot puree, butter basted carrots, muscovado bruleed figs, blood orange gel, orange bitters, and sorrel.
But it was Milktooth's Jonathan Brooks, after a long shift at his home restaurant, who took home the prize. Brooks put together a spicy duck breast and shiitake mushroom salad with a pomegranate fig vinaigrette and black lime; then blanquette of rabbit with some red curry pickled fennel. This, after working a full day that started before 7 am. Judge Neil Charles summed up Brooks' win thusly: "Both of Brooks' dishes were complete and particularly well executed, not even considering the time pressure. He showed that he has a broad repertoire, and produced two very convincing dishes from disparate culinary traditions. The blanquette was especially impressive, and quite audacious under the circumstances. I would have been happy to pay for both dishes without any question."
When I asked Brooks how he stays on the grind while maintaining his legendary kitchen zen, he said in so many words that the kitchen is his briar patch and he's the rabbit: "It's the only thing I've ever known. It's the only job I've ever had. It's my comfort place."
Before anyone's knives had even been re-honed or put away, the word "rematch" was already being thrown around rather loosely. And not one of the chefs present backed down from the idea of taking on the same people again.
Whether or not the event grows or goes public is largely dependent on what spaces will be available for the next one. The most likely candidate is Milktooth, which may provide a little more space for the general public. But then again, only time will tell how the public will react to a cooking competition where only the judges get to eat the food. That said, if the only other faces I see at these things are familiar ones, I'd be fine with that. Just know, reading public, that your favorite chefs are certainly not resting on their laurels or their restaurant's rep.