[Ed. note: I apologize for the gratuitous use of "link love" in the first part of this post. Having been given such a unique and cool opportunity, I wanted to make sure I promoted the event, chefs, and their restaurants as thoroughly as I could.]
As a James Bond fan, I should already know to never say never (again).
This year marks the second annual Top Chef fundraiser event at St. John Medical Center to help raise money for community outreach and wellness ministry programs. Initiated last year and won by Brandt Evans, Chef at Blue Canyon Kitchen in Twinsburg, this year they had four new well-established and major Cleveland chefs in the mix and Chef Evans had returned in the capacity of event judge. So, let's do the math: four major Cleveland chefs competing, great food, Ted Allen hosting/judging, and all for charity. Hmmm, what could possibly be wrong with this picture? The problem was the cost. At $150 per ticket, this was just something that was out of my price range right now.
When Amelia Sawyer, blogger from Chef's Widow and wife of one of tonight's competing chefs, offered two tickets to a randomly selected comment on her blog, I quickly entered by tweeting about the event and then pasting the contents of my tweet into a comment in the hopes I might win. From my Twitter account:
"Win 2 Tickets to the Top Chef benefit at St. John’s this Friday night! ($300 value yo) http://tinyurl.com/288mlov/ Please RT
3:32 PM Jun 23rd via web"
I didn't have much hope because Amelia's blog is well read and before you knew it, there were 45 other comments stating more or less the same thing in a valiant attempt to be the one randomly chosen comment. So, when I checked in on June 25th to see who won the tickets, I was completely unsurprised to discover that someone else, "YOD," had been selected. What I didn't realize was that YOD only had until noon on June 25th to contact Amelia and claim the tickets.
In an ironic twist, I was instant messaging a fellow friend on that very topic earlier in the morning:
"Well, I can tell you where I won't be at tonight ... that Top Chef event. At $150 per seat, it's just a little bit too rich for my blood right now."
Little did I know what was about to land in my lap. At about 12:30 pm, I heard the email notification go off: Ding Dong. I checked my Gmail account and there was a message from "Chef's Widow." Now I know that Chef's Widow is Amelia, but it didn't even dawn on me until I read the title of the email (Winner, winner, chicken dinner!) and opened it up to find that YOD had not only defaulted on the tickets by not claiming them, but a second random comment selection had been made and I was the replacement winner! I quickly emailed Amelia back and said as emphatically as I could without coming across all creepy stalkerish, "YES, PLEASE!"
Fortunately, the only plans I had made for the evening were to meet up with my foodie friend, Edsel, for a post work cocktail at the Velvet Tango Room. Having literally just confirmed that I would be meeting up with him for drinks later in the day, I quickly shot him another message telling him of my good fortune and asking if he would like to be the recipient of the other ticket. His schedule post-VTR was also clear and he quickly accepted my offer. We met up for a single drink, collected our cameras and phones, and headed off to Westlake to kick off the evening's festivities.
Before getting into the crazy details of the competition and the food, I wanted to take a minute and give the competing chefs a little bit of press. First up was Jonathan Bennett, Executive Chef of Moxie Restaurant and Red, the Steakhouse in Beachwood:
I've written about my experience at Moxie before when I attended one of their family style dinners. I have to say, it was probably some of the juiciest, tastiest fried chicken I think I have ever had. While I haven't had anything off their regular menu, I am really looking forward to returning for another meal soon.
Next up was Chef Ellis Cooley, Executive Chef of AMP 150 in the Marriott Hotel near the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport:
I have blogged twice now about my experiences at AMP 150 and even though Chef Cooley is a recent addition to the Cleveland culinary scene, I am really excited about his philosophy on local food and even more excited about his world-fusion approach to cuisine. In fact, in an odd twist of fate, I had already made dinner reservations for next week to showcase his talents to a friend of mine who will be coming into town.
Third on tonight's roster was Chef Regan Reik, Executive Chef of Pier W located off of Lake Avenue in Lakewood:
Of the four competing chefs tonight, Chef Reik's restaurant was the only one I have yet to visit. However, I have heard many positive comments on his food from my fellow Cleveland foodies and I was looking forward to seeing what he brought to the table.
The final contender tonight was Chef Jonathan Sawyer, Owner and Chef of the Greenhouse Tavern on E. 4th Street in downtown Cleveland:
I am a huge fan of Chef Sawyer's food (and I'm not just saying that because I won tickets to this event from his wife, Amelia) and have written about some of my several visits here on the blog. I have had a number of fantastic meals at his restaurant and continue to recommend it to people who are looking for something tasty and unique. His Ohio beef burger is one of my top burgers in all of northeast Ohio, easily tieing the many burger creations of Michael Symon's B Spot restaurant.
Alright, enough setup. Let's get down to business!
After securing our wrist bands, Edsel and I entered the massive tent that had been set up on the campus of St. John Medical Center for tonight's event. While we had arrived at precisely 6:31 PM, there were already quite a few people in the tent area. In addition to the four chef stations at the four corners of the tent, there were also two bars, a dais where the judges would sit, and a centrally located appetizer station. Which, ironically enough, already had quite a long line. After taking a few cursory photographs, Edsel and I decided to get in line to check out the appetizers. As we got close to the station, Ted Allen made his inaugural appearance for tonight's event and welcomed everyone:
Of the three judges, I will have to admit that Ted's banter was among the most balanced. I don't believe he was scripted, but I'm sure having done a number of these events every year gave him a certain amount of practice at what the crowds do and don't want to hear. The other two judges were more off the cuff and as such, seemed less "polished." Although I will be the first to admit that Chef Evans more than once laid a humorous zinger on the audience which brought fits of laughter.
It took us a good twenty minutes to finally reach the appetizer table:
Sadly, by the time we reached this table, many of the bowls of food were empty or close to being empty. Fortunately, that didn't stop me from putting together a decent plate of food:
The food at the appetizer buffet was being presented in part by the Blackbird Baking Company and Seballos Pastries. Besides the delicious bread (and it was indeed good), you had fresh figs, real Parmesan cheese, a sun-dried tomato tapenade, a crab salad and a cucumber topped with an herbed cream cheese (almost like boursin cheese), a slice of smoked salmon and topped off with a dill sprig. Everything was tasty, although I kind of wished the crab "martini" had incorporated a little bit of a horseradish kick to it. It was kind of like a Bloody Mary crossed with a crab salad and would've definitely benefited from a little zing to the flavor.
The way tonight's evening worked was that from 7 - 8 PM, the four competing chefs would be serving their appetizers and from 8:15 - 9 PM, the entrées would be available for pickup. To give you some idea of what it takes to serve this many people, I took a shot of the staging area at Chef Cooley's portion of the tent:
There were two of these tables literally lined with plate after plate, row after row of his dishes, ready for the finishing touches of micro-salad, sauce, and beet paper. Each chef had a cadre of kitchen staff to help with the plating, then transfer to the front table, and finally handing out finished plates to the guests.
The first appetizer I tried was Chef Cooley's:
This was a terrine of roasted beets and Lake Erie Creamery goat cheese with a beet gastrique and beet paper. I commented to Edsel upon first looking at it that it looked like a raw Wagyu beef steak as the layers of roasted beets and goat cheese had created an almost marbling effect. Dressed with micro-greens from KJ Greens, this was an incredibly delicious appetizer. With hints of citrus, the flavors were amazingly balanced and subtle. Had I not known I was eating beets, I never would've known. The goat cheese also had an incredibly mild flavor and while it added a definite richness to the flavor, this was a perfect summer dish. Wow, the bar had already been set high.
Next up was Chef Bennett's appetizer:
Here you had a spiced poached shrimp perched atop a coarse gazpacho with whipped cilantro foam. Sadly, by the time I got to this dish, the foam had subsided, but the presence of micro-cilantro garnishing the top added the nice zippy flavor that the foam would've provided. With the addition of lime juice and Fresno chili, this dish had a nice spicy bite to it without being too potent. The shrimp was large and sweet, but the gazpacho was much less soup and much more dressed vegetables. I suppose Chef Bennett was playing a little fast and loose with what is traditionally considered gazpacho.
The third appetizer was from Chef Reik:
Here was a forest mushroom terrine with sorrel ice cream, sorrel coulis and aged balsamic dressing. Made using both morel and portobello mushrooms, this duxelle-like mixture had been wrapped in blanched leeks before being pressed into the terrine. The sorrel ice cream was the presence of tonight's only real "molecular gastronomy" component as they had formed these tiny little balls with the help of liquid nitrogen. It should be noted that this dish was about as close as it came to being the only vegetarian dish, were it not for the veal stock in which the duxelle had been cooked. The only problem that I had was that the leek wrapper was a bit hard to cut through, even with my (plastic) knife, so it kind of fell apart as I tried to portion it into bite-sized pieces. I do have to give the chef credit for the sorrel ice cream, however. It was quite piquant, but delicious.
The final appetizer of the evening was Chef Sawyer's:
Here was the foie gras steamed clams with butter, red onion brulee, late harvest viognier vinegar and grilled bread. I've actually had this dish at his restaurant and can tell you, it was delicious then and it was certainly delicious tonight. The thought of steaming and holding so many clams was an amazing feat all by itself. The clams were tender, the broth was rich without being fatty and the grilled bread added a wonderful crunch and bitterness that balanced out the other flavors so well. I just wish I had gotten more bread to soak up the wonderful sauce.
Having finished our appetizers before time had run out, I decided to venture up to the bar to grab some drinks for Edsel and I. Here was a shot of the complimentary drink menu tonight:
Another sign revealed who was staffing the two bar areas:
I had heard of Loco Leprechaun before, but have yet to have a chance to actually visit the establishment. Irish and Mexican sounds like an, umm, interesting mix of cuisines.
At the end of the appetizer hour, each chef presented the judges with an expertly plated version of their dish and the judges bantered back and forth about each dish's merits. Once the four dishes were presented and tasted, service quickly shifted over to serving the entrées.
Here was Chef Cooley's entrée:
This was a sirloin beef roulade containing braised short ribs and corned beef and was served with a lobster carrot puree and arugula salad with Parmigiano cheese. Having cooked the carrots down in lobster stock, the sauce had a pronounced seafood flavor, almost as if the chef had added fish sauce. To continue with the Asian theme, there was also a generous dose of ginger flavor as well. Studded with small bits of cooked lobster, I have to be honest when I say that I wasn't crazy about the sauce by itself. However, when paired with the roulade, this was an incredibly balanced and delicious bite of food. The roulade, which to my eyes resembled a braciole, was tender and flavorful. Chef Cooley joked around with the judges that he was thinking of adding this to his menu and calling it an Irish Sirloin.
The second entree of the evening was Chef Bennett's:
This was 18-hour Ohio pulled pork, JB's grits, and spicy peach slaw. The pork shoulder, which had been first cooked sous vide, had been infused with a slightly peppery spice rub. While there was sadly no bark on which to nibble, the presence of pork cracklings garnishing the top of the plate was a welcome touch. The grits, which had been cut with the presence of fresh corn, weren't quite as creamy as what Edsel has had in the past at Moxie, but they were plenty sweet and savory all at the same time. The peach slaw had also been dressed with Thai basil, which added a wonderful herbaceous bite to the dish. When I finally managed to snag a bit of the pork, grits, peach slaw, and cracklings all on my fork at the same time, I took a bite and was rewarded with probably the most well-balanced dish of the entire evening. Sweet, spicy, salty, crunchy and creamy were all represented.
The third entrée of the evening was from Chef Reik:
This was Copper River salmon wrapped in housemade pancetta topped with warm Ohio strawberry jam and served with a mustard green pierogi. While I heard many exclaim that the salmon was cooked perfectly, it was closer to medium well and I normally prefer mine more medium rare. That being said, obviously the chef was in no position to cook each piece of fish to order. The fish was wonderfully rich and the layer of pancetta added a bright saltiness to each dish. The surprising item on this plate to me was the strawberry jam. While it didn't add a prominent strawberry flavor, the sweetness added a nice foil to the saltiness from the pancetta. The mustard green pierogi, incorrectly identified by Ted Allen as a wonton during the subsequent judging portion, was tender and the filling had a nice earthy texture and flavor.
The final entrée of the evening was presented by Chef Sawyer:
Here you have an Ohio lamb crepinette with heirloom vegetable ratatouille. Essentially cooked bone in, the lamb was shredded and wrapped up in the skin and then roasted. While neither Edsel nor I got any of the skin, apparently those who tasted it said that it was crispy and delicious, much like the bark would be from pulled pork. And in fact, to continue the comparison to pulled pork, the lamb was so tender and pulled apart so easily, that I can totally understand making the textural comparison of the lamb to pulled pork as well. The vegetable ratatouille was briny and tart, most likely due to the Moroccan spice blend chermoula as well as additional lemon and caper flavors.
By this point, I can definitely tell you gentle reader, I was STUFFED. With pre-event appetizers, four competition appetizers and four competition entrées, I was ready for a nice nap. However, the event organizers had one more trick up their sleeves. They had brought in Tremont's A Cookie And A Cupcake to supply sweet treats for post-dinner consumption. Here was a shot of the plate that Edsel brought back to the table:
Here you have three sets of mini-cupcakes: strawberry, raspberry with candied lavender, and espresso. Each was tasty and the perfect way to top off this incredible meal.
So, after all that, who won? In addition to the official winner, there was also a People's Choice winner. In each program guide was a ballot that you could tear out and place in one of four designated ballot boxes. The winner of the People's Choice award, as well as a check for $1000, was Chef Jonathon Bennett from Moxie. And after much deliberation and discussion by the official judges, tonight's overall award, along with a check for $2500 and bragging rights, was presented to Chef Regan Reik from Pier W. While I personally wanted to see Chef Cooley walk away with the top prize, I can't fault Chef Reik's imaginative use of ingredients and creation of well-balanced dishes. Congratulations to both chefs!
Thanks again to Amelia for taking what would've been a rather boring, dreary Friday night and turning it into a fabulous evening out with a good friend enjoying some of the finest cuisine that Cleveland has to offer. Hopefully next year I'll be able to afford the tickets on my own without having to rely on the generosity of others.