Chefs have to please diners every time they send a plate out of their kitchens, but the competition at Gambit’s Emerging Chefs Challenge upped the pressure — and the reward. At The Cannery on Wednesday, Aug. 28, Chefs handed dishes directly to attendees, who sampled items from the dozen finalists and voted for their favorite.
The dishes ranged from creative comfort food inspirations to elegantly simple haute cuisine. Barcadia chef Nick Hufft reinterpreted spaghetti Bolognese with Korean-accented kimchi noodles and spicy beef bulgogi. Ye Olde College Inn’s Brad McGehee reconfigured chicken and waffles into mini-waffle cones topped with peach preserves. Bayona’s Brett Duffee highlighted locally sourced foods with braised Chappapeela Farms duck in a peanut mole atop caramelized banana sopes. Chef Anthony Scanio of Emeril’s Delmonico tossed spinach and ricotta gnudi with braised Mississippi rabbit, tomato and green olives and topped it with brown butter-toasted almonds.
When the more than 460 ballots were tallied, the favorite was Gautreau’s chef Nick Lama’s citrus-poached shrimp with jumbo lump crab, mango slaw and lemon grass broth. In the pretty presentation, a large pink knuckle of shrimp rested on julienned yellow and red peppers and jalapenos in a zesty broth made with coconut milk.
Lama’s reaction when he was handed the trophy?
“Shocked,” he says. “Really shocked.”
But he was well prepared. Two months ago, Lama had helped Gautreau’s executive chef Sue Zemanick cook at the New York premiere party for the current season of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters. They prepared Zemanick’s recipe for mahi mahi escabeche for 250 guests, including most of the chefs from the show and hosts Curtis Stone and Gail Simmons.
For the Emerging Chefs Challenge, Lama was in charge, and Zemanick surprised him by working on his crew at the event. He developed ideas for his dish a month ago.
“It’s summer, so I wanted to do something light and refreshing,” Lama says. “I thought coconut and lemon grass worked well with a cold dish.”
Contestants had to plate their dishes as hungry judges lined up at their tables, and Lama considered that constraint as well.
“Cooking for 500 people and keeping up with demand, I thought a cold dish would be smart,” he says, though he noticed advantages with hot items during the event. “We were next to American Sector, and they were searing pork belly at the table. That aroma helps draw people, and it appeals to another sense.”
But Lama had reason to be confident about his dish. When he developed the recipe and showed it to Zemanick, they decided to add it to Gautreau’s menu. It’s available as an appetizer, but lobster is substituted for shrimp.
The Emerging Chefs Challenge showcased some of the rising talents in the local restaurant industry. To be eligible, contestants had to work at an area restaurant and have been head chef or chef de cuisine for three years or less. More than 40 chefs were nominated and finalists were selected by a panel of judges including Randy Fertel and slow food advocate Poppy Tooker. The winners were determined solely based on the ballots of event attendees.
Lama claimed the first place trophy and a $1,000 cash prize. Second place went to Lincoln Owens of Me Me’s Bar & Grill for his dish of a seared scallop over stone-ground grits with Creolaise sauce. Hufft won third place for his bulgogi and kimchi noodle dish.
In addition to the chefs named above, the finalists included Austin Kirzner of Red Fish Grill, Camille Boudreaux of Killer Poboys and Dis Taco, Mia Calamia from La Divina Gelateria, Dick & Jenny’s Stacy Hall, Jeff Mattia from American Sector and Vanessa Thurber of Vine & Dine.