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Gambit's Emerging Chefs Challenge

Frank Etheridge on a savory (and sweet) competition



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.

New Orleans was a food-obsessed city before chefs were viewed as pop culture's new rock stars. But that's an understandable comparison, given the intimate connection restaurantgoers feel toward their favorite meal at their favorite spot. Chefs balance a mix of artistic passion and business necessity in crafting dishes and building their careers. Several competitors spoke to Gambit before the event about the memories, mentors and motivations that influenced their careers.

  When it was time for chef Boudreaux to enter the workforce, he says he discovered "the kitchen was where the cool stuff was happening — you could chase the party, show up for work hungover and unshaven and still do your job."

  Last month, Boudreaux (and partner April Bellow) opened Dis Taco in the back of Molly's at the Market. It's his second French Quarter establishment, along with his first venture Killer Poboys, housed in the back of the bar Erin Rose. Comparing the strategy involved in opening in the back of bars to "the food-truck model," he says the reduced overhead allows him to offer higher wages and spend more on ingredients such as all-natural meats and items sourced from local family farms.

  Boudreaux says he didn't "take the culinary arts seriously" until he attended the New England Culinary Institute, which he followed with stints in heralded New York City restaurants, notably the Standard Grill, where he learned under the guidance of chef Dan Silverman. He returned to his native New Orleans and worked at Green Goddess before venturing out on his own.

  Thurber worked as a stockbroker in Arkansas at the time of the 9/11 attacks. That was, she says, "Where you ask yourself, 'Do I really want to spend the rest of my life doing this?' Or do I want to pursue the dream I've always put on the back burner?'"

  Thurber gave her employer two-weeks' notice and moved to New Orleans with her cat. She worked in local kitchens and enrolled at Delgado Community College's culinary program. After a year, she decided she was "learning more on the job, from the people I was working with there."

  That mix of classroom and on-the-job training eventually led Thurber to combine her dual passions for food and wine at her own restaurant. But Thurber says when she was hired by chef Chris Montero (then at Bacco, now at Cafe B), "I had literally no idea what I was doing. He took a chance on me. I learned a lot of good habits from him, and not just about cooking. About organizing, about finding the most efficient way to go about your workday. Without that, there's no way I could be doing what I'm doing now."

  When asked about his food-related philosophies, West Bank native and four-year Bayona veteran chef Brett Duffee's approach to his craft is as simple as the Port Sulphur fish camp he visited while growing up. It was, he says, a simple camp with no electricity or no running water — where you could "fight the fish right off the dock." Frying the day's catch resulted in special meals and moments Duffee now connects with the smell of a driftwood fire, of oil sizzling in a skillet. "You can't put that on a plate," he says, "but it definitely sparks the imagination, these memories of food."

  Duffee draws on those memories when cooking. "Frying a fish is the same as poaching a fish in that they have to be on time, on point," he says. "That's why a potato salad can be as good as a cassoulet. It's all a matter of time and place."

  The intersection of time and place also inform Scanio's culinary approach at Emeril's Delmonico. A former English major at Tulane University, he left school when it no longer interested him. Scanio found cuisine to be full of ideas. "Food is an expression of culture," he says.

  Scanio counts Donald Link (Cochon, Peche) as a mentor and now executes Emeril Lagasse's vision of "new New Orleans cuisine." Scanio says he had a "long, difficult time finding my way into Creole cooking. Funny, since I'm from here."

  Between his tenures at Herbsaint and Emeril's Delmonico, he and wife Jennifer went to Italy, where Scanio would stage (the French term for an apprenticeship exchanging free labor for instruction from professional chefs) and soak up Italy's rich culinary traditions. While learning to hunt for wild herbs and incorporate the bounty around him, Scanio rediscovered Creole cuisine by exploring its roots in Old World traditions. "There's an effortlessness to it," Scanio says of Italian cooking.

  Though the hours and stress of overseeing a large restaurant operation can feel lightyears removed from that Old World effortlessness, Scanio says "staying true" will lead to success for aspiring chefs. "Stay true to the food," he says. "Maintain the passion for it and the love of bringing it to people ... if you stay true to that, you'll succeed."

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