Chef Brandon Felder of the CBD fine dining restaurant Le Foret and his chef de cuisine, Adam Gianelloni, collaborated on several possible dishes to bring to Gambit's Emerging Chefs Challenge at The Cannery Aug. 27. They decided to use a pork belly dish they already had developed, but in a new version: sugarcane-glazed kurobuta pork belly with goat cheese spoonbread.
"Adam has a rub for pork belly and has a unique way of cooking them," Felder says. "He did the pork belly and I had an idea for spoonbread and it worked. It was thought out. We wanted to do something different, that we hadn't done before (at the restaurant)."
They were prepared for serious compe-tition as they looked over the names of the 14 other finalists.
"As soon as I found out all the chefs — I know the guy from MoPho, he had been at Restaurant August. I thought (Michael Gulotta) was the guy to beat," Felder says. "When he came in third, I looked at Adam and was like, 'I think we have a chance.' Then when (Mark) Majorie came in second, I was like, 'I don't know. I just don't know.'"
Felder, Gianelloni and the Le Foret team won the most votes from event attendees and claimed the Emerging Chefs Challenge trophy.
"It was awesome and overwhelming," Felder says. "Le Foret has been here for five years, and we're not recognized yet. People don't really know us or the restaurant. It's nice to get our names out there."
The competition featured an array of chefs from new and established restaurants, as well as chef Brent Tranchina representing Dinner Lab, the membership-based popup concept. To be eligible, chefs must have served for three years or less as head chef or chef de cuisine at a New Orleans-area restaurant.
Felder and Gianelloni split the first place $1,000 cash prize. Chef Mark Majorie Jr. of the Fountain Lounge at the Roosevelt Hotel won second place, and chef Michael Gulotta of MoPho was third.
Chefs represented historic properties, including Tujague's and the Roosevelt Hotel, as well as new eateries, such as Milkfish, MoPho, Treo and Pizza Domenica. The competition was a showcase for more adventurous dishes, which reflected the latest trends in the New Orleans dining scene, such as the use of molecular gastronomy techniques and elaborate presentations at restaurants like chef Phillip Lopez's Root and Square Root and the recently shuttered Stella!
There were more traditional dishes, such as Red Fish Grill chef Austin Kirzner's soft-shell crab bisque topped with Louisiana blue crab relish. Marigny Brasserie chef Travis Cheatum cured salmon with orange liqueur and served it with mint and white beans atop bruschetta. Two chefs made ceviche, including a Filipino-style drum and shrimp version by Milkfish's Cristina Quackenbush. Seither's Seafood served shrimp ceviche on crispy won ton chips. More exotic creations included Restaurant R'evolution chef Erin Swanson's red velvet cornbread with foie gras mousse and moonshine-soaked figs. Tujague chef Richard Bickford served Abita root beer pork belly with oyster-andouille cream and sweet corn chow chow.
Felder grew up in Jefferson Parish and his interest in food was based in traditional Creole and Cajun cooking.
“I don’t like to play it safe. I want to try to open people’s minds. … I think (New Orleans) is more adventurous, but we’re still grounded in tradition.” - Mark Majorie Jr.
"My family was Irish, Creole, Cajun," Felder says. "We grew up frying shrimp. We got fresh seafood. My grandmother would make stuffed bell peppers, etouffee, gumbo. I grew up with that Cajun and Creole style of cooking. I had never been exposed to anything (like New Orleans' new contemporary cooking). I think I ate sushi for the first time in high school — and loved it."
Felder attended culinary school at Culinary Institute of Virginia College in Birmingham, Alabama. He returned to New Orleans to do an externship at Commander's Palace, where he stayed for two years before moving to chef Scott Boswell's Stella!, which featured one of the city's more experimental and visually dramatic approaches to haute cuisine.
"I went from the biggest, baddest fine dining restaurant, Commander's Palace, from doing 700 to 800 people a night to a more technical restaurant, doing 100 people a night, but putting 15 to 16 elements on a plate, and doing them perfectly, Felder says. "I had never seen food look that way. I took those two skills and combined them (at Le Foret); we're doing large numbers and we're being technical about it — with pretty plate ups."
Le Foret will serve Felder's Chefs Challenge dish in September.
Mark Majorie Jr. won second place with a dish of lamb's neck over English pea miso with nectarines. The lamb sat on a bed of pea miso, which he started fermenting three months ago. And he also added nectarines that he pickled with juniper and lavender. He says a similar dish will be on the menu at the Fountain Lounge in September.
At The Roosevelt, Majorie is in charge of the Fountain Lounge, Teddy's Cafe and room service for the more than 500 rooms and suites. At the Fountain Lounge, he presents dishes to match the city's cutting edge chefs and restaurants.
"It's a pretty iconic property," Majorie says. "But we're taking it up a level to stay up with New Orleans. We're hitting the Fountain Lounge heavy. We're specializing in charcuterie."
Before starting at the Fountain Lounge, Majorie helped his friend Gulotta — they attended Brother Martin High School together — open MoPho. He also worked at Root. Prior to that, Majorie worked at resorts in the Caribbean and at Trump International Beach Resort in Miami, where he also entered cooking competitions. His experiences there shaped his ideas about such culinary events.
"I don't like to play it safe," he says. "I want to try to open people's minds. ... I think (New Orleans) is more adventurous, but we're still grounded in tradition. I'm glad that foodies are here."
At MoPho, Gulotta and his two partners opened a neighborhood restaurant that features a gourmet take on Vietnamese and Asian dishes. At the competition, Gulotta decided to feature a version of one of the restaurant's mainstays.
"I know the flavors, I love the dish and I wanted to stand behind something we do every day," Gulotta says.
He also wanted to showcase the restaurant's local approach.
"Everything in there is local," he says. "The lamb comes from Two Run Farm — Charlie Mumford is a friend of mine; I use all his products. All the vegetables come from either Covey Rise Farms or Pelican Produce, as well as the herbs in the salad on top. The cilantro — all of that is grown by Michelle Posey at Pelican Produce (Gardens). She's a Habitat for Humanity grower, she uses backyards of Habitat homes for a farm. Everything is sourced locally except cashews; you can't get cashews to grow locally."
Indian-style green curry isn't common in New Orleans, but Gulotta is making it more familiar. At MoPho, he bridges the gap between familiar and new dishes. He's working on a chicken wing dish to put on the menu for football game days.
"I think New Orleans is a strange animal," he says. "We love our food. We like our comfort food. We're also down for trying things that bridge the gap. That's why we try not to go too crazy (at MoPho). We try to keep the bold flavors of New Orleans — we just try to present them in new and interesting ways.
2014 Emerging Chefs Challenge dishes
Spicy lamb sausage with creamy polenta cakes and confit tomatoes