Chefs are always experimenting with new ingredients and techniques, but that usually happens in the quiet of their kitchens well before the guests arrive. It’s another thing entirely to compete head to head with other talented chefs and a basket of unknown ingredients knowing that if your dish isn’t tops, you are finished.
And yet, 16 line cooks from some of Austin’s best restaurants have battled it out round by round in Uchi’s Citywide 86’d competition to prove their talent and win a chance to stage in a celebrated kitchen to learn new techniques and cuisines. Similar in style to the Food Network show Chopped, competitors earned their way through cooking up to three courses using a basket of secret ingredients with one participant being cut after each dish, appetizer, entree or dessert.
The final four, John Hajash of Congress, Brandon Martin from Foreign & Domestic, Sway’s Joaquin Cebollas and Chase Gintner met at The AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center to compete for the title on Monday, June 17.
“I like the show Chopped and thought I’d be good at it. I like to compete and I thought it would be really fun,” said contestant Chase Gintner. “I’ll never play football or win the Super Bowl so this is the best I got.”
Originally started as an in-house competition for the staff of Uchi, Uchiko and Uchiko Houston, Chef Tyson Cole expanded the competition to include other area restaurants. Any restaurant staff that did not include sous chef level or above, including hostesses to servers, were invited to contend for a chance to win. The initial four rounds included contestants from Swift's Attic, Parkside, Olive & June, La Condesa, Kome, Sway, Congress, Foreign & Domestic and Cafe Josie.
Every step of the way, the chefs were trying to impress some of the best culinary palates in Central Texas. The final judges included Mat Clouser (Swift’s Attic), Jason Dady (Jason Dady Restaurants), Aaron Franklin (Franklin BBQ) and Josh Watkins (The Carillon). Uchi Executive Pastry Chef Philip Speer emceed the event, helping translate what was happening in the kitchen for the audience and quizzing contestants about their dishes.
The team from Uchi didn’t take it easy on the competitors. The appetizer round was only 25 minutes and included a whole rabbit that had to be broken down into manageable pieces. The audience crowded around stations eager to see what the cooks would create, while Speer called the play by play. The judges stood on the riser overlooking the crowd commenting on technique and ingredient choices. Brandon Martin of Foreign & Domestic was the first contestant eliminated.
As audience members watched the competition, they enjoyed samples from Freedmen’s, Cafe Josie, Kome, Uchi and Parkside while sipping fine wines poured by local sommeliers Scott Ota, Mark Sayre and Bill Elsey.
In the entree round, the contestants again had to break down the protein, a whole Guinea Fowl, in order to cook the bird quickly enough to get it to the judges. When the plates arrived there were questions about whether one of the dishes was cooked through. The judges ruled that while it was on the pink side, the entree was safe to eat, and began peppering the contestant with other questions. Chase Gintner was eliminated; Joaquin Cebollas and John Hajash were left to compete in the dessert round, possibly the most challenging basket of the night with the ingredients of lemongrass, kaffir lime, fennel, feta cheese and lardo.
When the desserts arrive, there was a nervous tension in the audience. “It is very difficult to create a perfect dish in the amount of time you have,” said contestant Joaquin Cebollas. “The only thing you can do is create a good idea and pray that the judges see that. It's very similar to a coin toss.”
This time, John Hajash of Congress won the toss and was named the first Citywide 86’d champion, winning a coveted week in New York staging with prestigious chefs like David Chang. In the end, all of the competitors were winners, each earning an opportunity to work with an esteemed chef in the state — John Tesar of Spoon in Dallas, Jason Dady of the Dady Group in San Antonio and Uchi in Houston.
Ticket sales from the Citywide 86’d finale benefited The Wine and Food Foundation of Texas, a local nonprofit that hosts local food and wine events and funds culinary scholarships and grants.