Most food fans have followed, or have at least heard of, popular Food Network competition show Chopped. The contest is divided into three stages: appetizer, entrée and dessert. In each round, participating chefs are given a basket containing four ingredients (which are often ones not commonly prepared together), and are challenged to create a dish containing all ingredients. The show's fast-paced, multi-round series of timed competitions keeps a repeat crowd coming back each week to see who can take the heat in the kitchen — and who simply can’t.
Next month, Austin will hold its own version of Chopped with the first ever “Citywide 86’d” Finale championship on June 17 through a partnership of Uchi restaurants, The Wine and Food Foundation of Texas and the Keeper Collection.
The idea originally began in 2008 when Uchi Chef/Owner Tyson Cole along with Pastry Chef and Director of Operations Philip Speer devised a similar competition for their internal staff between Uchi, Uchiko and eventually Uchi Houston. In many ways, it promoted a little spirited competition among colleagues, but it also helped participants sharpen their skills in the kitchen. For the competition, 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.
“I loved the challenge of the show and thought it would be a fun idea to do at our place to push my cooks and chefs in honing their skills,” says Cole. “It was fun for me to go out and buy all the secret ingredients and make the secret baskets for each round.”
This year, for the first time, Cole and Speer invited other restaurants to participate in monthly competitions involving four restaurants per competition. This Citywide 86'd, as it was eventually named, garnered significant support from top local restaurants including Foreign and Domestic, Congress, Swift’s Attic, Sway, Parkside and Olive and June.
“We thought it would be cool to do this whole thing city-wide and try to bring some level of connectivity to the Austin restaurant scene,” says Cole.
At each event, four contestants began the competition, each receiving a basket of mystery ingredients that they must turn into a dish — beginning with an appetizer, then an entrée, then a dessert. Each dish was judged on creativity, presentation and taste by a rotating panel of food and drink professionals throughout Austin. (Among some of this season’s judges were Texas Monthly’s Patricia Sharpe, Southern Living’s Paula Disbrowe, 101X's Deborah O’Keefe.)
Last weekend, I joined Jester King’s Ron Extract, Uchiko's Sterling Ridings and Carla Williams of the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts at Uchiko to judge the fourth competition. The day proved to be an exhilarating experience of watching four highly focused up-and-coming chefs as they busied their way around the Uchiko kitchen for three intensive rounds of cooking.
Judges were allowed in the kitchen to watch the chaos of wok frying, Robokus whirring and frenetic chopping as each contestant managed to compose well-executed dishes. In the end, the fourth and final contestant added to the lineup for the Citywide 86’d Finale next month was Sway’s Chase Gintner, who not only walked away with the win, but a serious hand slice from a frenzied mandolin malfunction during the second round of competition — turns out cooking competitions are dangerous business.
Gintner will join the other three finalists to compete before a distinguished judging panel of leading Texas chefs including Uchi's Tyson Cole, Mat Clouser of Swift’s Attic, Jason Dady of San Antonio’s Jason Dady Restaurants and Josh Watkins of The Carillon. Philip Speer will act as emcee.
“It’s been really exciting to see how this competition has engaged the restaurant community,” says Speer. “The restaurants have been so supportive of the semi-finals, we’re looking forward to opening the finale to the public.”
The final winner will receive an opportunity to stage (an industry term for “intern”) at a top national restaurant that has yet-to-be-determined. All airfare and accommodations will provided by The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas. And as a nod to all of the hard, intensely creative work executed by this team of culinary talent, each contestant will receive a Korin Japanese knife and Riedel glassware packages.
The championship will take place on Monday, June 17 at 6 p.m. at The AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center and will offer viewers enticing bites and beverages as they take in live viewing of the competition. Tickets are $75.