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Rising Star Chef’s Dinner at The Dallas Wine and Food Festival

Andrew Chalk reports from Rising Star Chef’s Dinner:

Every year aspiring DFW chefs sign up for The Rising Star Chef’s Contest, part of the Dallas Wine and Food Festival. Past winners have predicted some future Dallas culinary stars. For example:

2001 Joel Harloff, then of Mi Piaci, now of Dali. 2002 Blaine Staniford, then of The Riviera, now of Grace, Fort Worth. 2002 Aaron Studenmaier, then of Abacus, now Corporate Executive Chef, Rathbun Concepts. 2004 Tre Wilcox, then of Abacus, now of Loft 610. 2005 Jermaine Brown, then of Abacus, now of Loft 610. 2006 Chad Bowden, then of 2900, now of Culpepper’s. 2007 Keo Valesquez, then at Kitchen 1924, now of Urbano Café.

For the competition, each chef must produce a dish to go with a supplied wine. Half the contestants get a white wine and half are supplied with a red wine to work with. The chef’s dish is judged on three criteria

* Overall presentation, taste and originality.

* Compatibility of the food with the wine.

* Ease of preparation and accessibility of ingredients to the home cook.

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The competition is judged and the first and second placed winners in each category (“dish to go with red wine” and “dish to go with white wine”) present their winning entry a few weeks later as a course in the Rising Star Chefs Dinner in the Dallas Wine and Food Festival.

This year the dinner was held at the Nasher Sculpture Center. Before the meal, attendees gathered for a reception in the garden and were served 2008 B.R. Cohn Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, CA. Winery owner Bruce Cohn formerly tried to make money managing a rock group named ‘Pud’. It was a total failure. So he changed the group’s name to the Doobie Brothers and from that point on “Jesus was Just Alright” if you “Listen to the Music”. The resulting millions funded the winery. The Nasher must be one of the most picturesque places to hold an outdoor reception in Dallas. All mature trees and world class sculpture. It was a comfortable sixty-five degrees this year, although overcast. Must bring in the sun next year.

Nikki Miller, Executive Director of the Festival gives her opening speech at the dinner inside. Gary Cogill, Channel 8 Film Critic, was the emcee for the events.

Down to the serious business of the food. First up, and in Second Place with White Wine was Andrew Derden, Line Cook, Grace, Fort Worth with “King Crab and Pear Tempura, Spicy Avocado Mousse and Cucumber Relish”. The concept here seemed to be islands of taste and texture on the plate, with the mouth as the mixing chamber for it all. A video played during service showed Derden prepping the dish. This video, and the ones for each of the other chefs, should be required kleptomaniac objects for any home cook who wants to try these recipes. They explain the technique so much more clearly than words. For example, that tempura batter on the pear was crisp and clean. How did he achieve that? It’s in the video.

That crab is risky to serve like that. It is naked. If it is as tasteless as is so much seafood that reaches our landlocked parts, the whole dish falls flat. Fortunately, it was not a mere frozen chew but sweet and smooth. The green mixture visible in the picture is the cucumber relish, an admirable base and ‘liquefy-er’ for the rest of the dish. I admire Derden for going first. Research indicates that diners are not likely to rate their first dish as the best of the meal, regardless of how good it is. Derden’s dish was my favorite for its impeccable execution of each of the parts, and the careful choice of ingredients but with one caveat: Those green droppings are avocado mousse. Great taste but they look like Joan Miro on a bad paint day. Scrape them or something, then lay the rest of the ingredients down afterward.

Wine with this course and with the next the wine was 2008 Acrobat Oregon Pinot Gris. Acrobat is a label of King Estate in Oregon. This wine is a crisp and lightly fruity Pinot Gris, a style typical of Oregon.

Next was First Place with White Wine. This went to J Chastain, Executive Chef of The Second Floor Bistro  with “Seared Scallops with Baby Bok Choy, Peanuts and Apple Mustard Cream”. The picture kind of says it all. The searing on the scallops was perfect. The sauce went sublimely. What I didn’t like were the peanuts. They were the wrong nuts. The following course used hazelnuts for textual contrast and their more restrained flavors worked well. Having said that, a straw poll suggested this was the most popular dish at my table, so if democracy rules, you get nutty results.

The next course was prepared by Wolfgang Puck Catering (who cater the Nasher) and was not an entry in the competition. It was “Roasted Baby Beet Salad with Herbed Goat Cheese, Crushed Hazelnuts and Citrus Shallot Vinaigrette”. Oddly, a wine was served with it, even though the acid in vinaigrettes usually spells disaster for matching with wine. The salad itself was good. The victim wine was 2008 Acrobat Oregon Pinot Noir, a simple but pleasant Oregon Pinot.

Next up was First Place with Red Wine match Eric Peters, Executive Sous Chef of Central 214  with “Cherry Pistachio Crusted Lamb Loin, Vegetable Feta Orzo and a Red Wine Pan Sauce”. I could not find or taste any cherries on my lamb but the sauce was tasty and harmonious. Orzo was an imaginative choice as the starch component here. It brings the taste of pasta in an easily consumed size. I shall steal this idea. With it we had 2007 B.R. Cohn Silver Label Cabernet Sauvignon, North Coast, CA. One of our bottles was corked (the first of two corked bottles of that wine that night).

Finally, dessert. Second Place with Red Wine winner Mark Young, Sous Chef, Bijoux  prepared “Spicy Chocolate and Cherries Tart, Espelette Ganache, Fresno Pepper and Cherry Compote, Cherry Coke Gastric”. Everything on this plate tasted as good as it looks. If I could grab Mark Young and suggest anything it would be to add some color to the plate. Maybe a fresh, pitted, cherry? Maybe a piece of mint and powdered sugar? Maybe a full laser light show featuring those Doobie Brothers? As it stands, this composition is “too brown”, despite the intelligent use of a rectangular serving plate. In the spirit of full disclosure, I still ate it all.

Did you notice the “Power Behind The Scenes”? Two  of these four chefs work for Scott Gottlich. Is it a straightforward case of seeming global dominion? Or just a coincidence?

Overall, a great experience but I think that this competition is at odds with itself. The problem is that rule 2: “Ease of preparation and accessibility of ingredients to the home cook”. This forces a rising star chef to conform to the modest equipment, and even more modest capabilities, of the average home cook, like me. I may be proud of my latest scrambled egg variation but the technique involved doesn’t exceed 1% of what these pros can do. If the organizers abolished rule 2 they would give these chefs their full freedom to be creative. We could see exotic dishes like “Organ Meat of Extinct Animal in Liquid Nitrogen Nage”. Plus, the extra attention thrown on the chefs would be good for all involved. Hopefully, next year.

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