Three chefs are standing around prep tables in the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts kitchen staring at bright yellow cartons holding marshmallow candies. Someone in the crowd voices what they are all thinking, "Oh no, it's Peeps."
The chefs have been tasked with making an entree course in 30 minutes that must include venison, swiss chard, chèvre and the dreaded Peeps. They look flummoxed, but don’t have much time to ponder what they’ll do because the clock is ticking. They have to create something that will impress the judges enough to move on to the next round.
This scene has repeated itself over the last four months as 16 chefs, who hold non-management positions in local kitchens, competed for four coveted spots in the Citywide 86’d finale and the chance to stage with a celebrity chef. But first, they have to survive three rounds of head-to-head culinary combat (appetizer, entree and dessert), besting their fellow competitors while figuring out how to incorporate ingredients like biscuit and gravy potato chips, Sprinkle Donut Crunch cereal, cricket crackers and Hello Kitty bubble soda.
"You have to accept that you can't put up exactly what you want to, but you can put up something you can be proud of," says Joel Garza of St. Philip, the winner of the fourth round. "There is enough time to create a memory for the judges and that's special."
The competition originally started as an internal competition for the Uchi/Uchiko team and expanded to include other local restaurants. With the help of Keeper Collection and the Wine and Food Foundation of Texas, the culinary throw down has become an Austin staple over the last four years, kicking off in February with the finals in June. The opportunity to be recognized for their creativity and ability to think on their feet is worth the significant hurdles contestants face, which are higher for some chefs than others.
Eden East’s Claire Helbig, winner of the third round, entered the competition even though she is vegetarian and doesn’t eat some of the key ingredients she would have to use. "I was excited to put myself out there and show that I am not limited because of the items I restrict from my diet," says Helbig. "Good food is good food."
Garza and Helbig will will join Oscar Yip of Olive and June and Kevin Cannon of Barley Swine in the finale on Monday, June 15 at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center. The contestants will be judged by acclaimed regional chefs Jason Dady (Jason Dady Restaurants in San Antonio), Aaron Franklin (Franklin Barbecue), John Tesar (Knife and Oak Restaurant in Dallas), and Andrew Wiseheart (Gardner and Contigo).
In addition to facing unusual ingredients and time constraints, they’ll also have to deal with a helping of their own anxiety. Cannon says the key is getting through the first round. "The hardest part is the first dish," he says. "Time flies, but if you’re creative and competitive it’s worth doing."
Fans can cheer on the chefs while enjoying sips and nibbles from some of Austin’s favorite restaurants, like Barley Swine, St. Philip, Parkside Projects, Uchi and Uchiko, as well as cocktails from Revolution Gin and select wines.