Chef War is a relatively new event hosted by Chef Jonas Otsuji in which two local SLC chefs are invited to face off around a theme, and all of us Salt Lakers get to come and evaluate three dishes each to determine a winner. Given that Chef Tom Call (see my Tom Call fanboy post here) was going to battling it out around the theme of bacon, the opportunity was too compelling to miss.
I attended this event with a group of friends and we called ahead to find out what the wine situation would be. No wine. Strike one, but we could deal with that. When we rolled in last night, strike two was a bit less navigable. Chef War had sold significantly more tickets than they had in available seats. Ok for a concert, not so much for a dining event. The venue was a high end kitchen supply store and it just didn't work with the way they had it set up. Several people were in an entirely other room - so they could not see or hear any of the action - we decided to just pick up our table and move it into the main area, much to the chagrin of the people who had arrived on time and scored decent seats.
So, we pulled some tables together and made due and Tom Call came out to demo the first dish - a pork belly salad with a really interesting glaze. I wish I could tell you what the glaze was - but the PA system was only working in half of the building, and it wasn't our half. So Tom did his thing, which we couldn't see or hear, but c'est la vie. Then a dish arrived that wasn't what he had been cooking. Odd. The first dish served was a mixed winter greens salad with smoked pancetta oranges, grapes, cauliflower and garnished with PORK RINDS. This was good, not great, but I was so stoked on the usage of pork rind in haute cuisine that I overlooked any flaws.
Chef Katie Weinner was the author of the pork rind salad. Interestingly, Tom had been slated to square off against Roberto Denni, but he was a last minute (like 1.5 hours before go time) scratch. Rumor was that the owner of the restaurant in which Denni cooks threatened termination if Chef Denni participated in the competition, but that remains unconfirmed. So it is important to keep in mind that Katie drummed up her entire menu in about an hour. Impressive.
Next came Tom's pork belly. This was the best dish of the night - cooked exactly as a pork belly should be: crispy fat on the outside but soft throughout. It should be noted that we had no knives last night. Every dish had to be cooked as planned - you can't make it through an overcooked tenderloin with just a fork. After this one I was pretty sure that we were about to witness Tom make poor Katie Weinner feel bad about herself for the next couple of hours. Current score: Tom 1, Katie 0.
About the time I was having that thought, Katie issued her retort. Banana-infused polenta topped with bacon-wrapped Italian sausage and baby bok choi. I can't say that this dish objectively tasted better than Tom's pork belly, because it didn't, but this was what I paid for - interesting combinations that are way outside of my culinary lexicon. Next time you find yourself reaching into the fruit bowl for a banana, consider wrapping it with a touch of bacon. You'll be pleasently surprised.
Tom's next course: pancetta and basil encrusted salmon with sliced fingerling potatoes and a tomato reduction of some sort. I was pretty bummed here. Number one, the salmon was a touch overcooked. Not dramatically, but I expect perfection from Chef Tom. Number two, the bacon was a side note on this dish. I'm not sure how the bacon factored into the encrusting here, none of us could find in the flavor or with our eyes, but there were a few nuggets of pancetta in the sauce. New points on the scoreboard: Tom 1, Katie 1.
Katie's final course came next. I momentarily lost myself and ate it before I took a photo, but here's the skinny: dark chocolate cake topped with.... bacon. The cake was great - very dense almost like a flourless cake, but I did not get topped with enough bacon. I was made to feel bad because the poor girl next to me received exactly zero bacon on her cake. If you took the bacon on my piece of cake, you could have fit it onto a dime about 6 times. Bacon battle was starting to fizzle.
Next came Tom's final course. Given that we had just had chocolate cake I was ready for some mind-blowing bacon dessert. Maybe a thick sliced bacon strip dipped in home made milk chocolate or something totally unexpected involving bacon, sugar and no chocolate at all. What arrived was a pork tenderloin, wrapped in bacon, and served on a grilled pear and some winter greens. Was the pear a dessert? The truth is, I feel like there was a snafu in the timing here because this was no dessert course. Beyond that - it was only decent, not mind blowing. My tenderloin was again a touch overcooked, and it was cold. To be fair to Tom, I believe this was none of his fault - just seems that the Chef War crew did not have their act together.
Final Score: Tom 1, Katie 1 - contest rendered unjudgeable due to poor event planning from Chef War.
So that's the food, but there were other notable features of the evening. First, the only cooking we saw last night was in the first 10 minutes or so when Tom was out front. He was walking us through what went into the dish and then headed back to the kitchen... but he forgot to turn off his mic. Next thing we know we are hearing Tom's voice again, this time asking "Why the fuck is there no sauce on this? These all need some fucking sauce!". Far and away the comic high point of the evening - mostly due to the many families with children in the audience and their outraged expressions.
Second necessary info point: Chef War is billed as a culinary event, but it is really an infomercial for the sponsors. We tuned out but every few minutes a lady in a corset (yep...) came out and tried to sell us on a personal coach, new faucet or organic marketplace.
Finally, thanks to Joseph Welles Henderson the fourth, we drank the best wine in the room - 2005 Radio-Coteau Cherry Camp Syrah. I'm usually not a huge Syrah fan, but this one trends more towards Pinot characteristics while still being forward enough to complement fatty pork dishes (like bacon? indeed). This may be the perfect wine for a bacon pairing.
The Verdict? Chef War is a mess. They may be able to get their act together because they can clearly attract some top notch talent at these events, but until I see firm evidence that the event management skills have caught up to the culinary talent associated with this party, I'm out.