Chef Josh Watkins, head chef at The Carillon, now has double the reasons to celebrate this week: Just a few days ago he and his wife welcomed his son, Cash Watkins, into the world, and last night he championed over Swift’s Attic’s Chef Zack Northcutt and Vivo’s Chef Paul Petersen in the 3rd annual Tops in Texas Cook-off held at the AT&T Conference Center.
“I’m pumped because I get to go home and tell my wife that I won,” says Watkins, who was voted the Fan Favorite by event attendees and selected as the cook off winner by the celebrity judging panel comprised of Chef David Bull of Congress; Chef Tyson Cole, owner and chef of Uchi and Uchiko, Top Chef Cheftestant Arnold Myint, and Top Chef Cheftestant Tre Wilcox.
With the arrival of Watkin’s son, he was initially going to back out of the competition, but his wife said he had to go through with it, says a sleep-deprived Watkins. And he is glad he did.
As the cook-off’s champion, Watkins won a 4-day/3-night trip to Key West, Florida with accommodations at the Casa Marina Resort & Spa. The estimated retail value of the award is $4,100.
In Top Chef/Iron Chef-like fashion, the Tops in Texas Cook-off contestants were asked to prepare a dish that included several required ingredients: Texas boneless quail, fresh kale, sweet potatoes and either Honey Crisp or Jonagold Apples.
In an added challenge, contestants had to create two recipes for their dish—one for the celebrity judges and another in a banquet format that would be cooked by students at the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts here in Austin for the event attendees.
Chefs Watkins, Petersen and Northcutt chose knives, guided by Emcee Devon Broglie, a Master Sommelier and the specialty wine coordinator for the Southwest at Whole Foods Market, to determine the order each would present their dishes to the judges.
Northcutt, who presented first, prepared a dish of seared quail with a mustard seed sauce, grilled kale and an apple cake.
“I pulled the last plate away at the last second,” Northcutt says of the final 30-minute cooking period each chef was allowed before presenting to the judges.
Petersen, formerly of the Gage Hotel in Marathon, Texas, and who has always wanted to be a rock-star, presented a plate of seared quail, roasted and mashed sweet potatoes with parmesan and a kale vinaigrette.
Although judges were not very impressed with his sweet potatoes and vinaigrette, they unanimously agreed Petersen's quail was the best. He first hard seared the popular game bird for a good crust with salt, pepper and olive oil. He finished the quail by roasting it in th eoven and letting it sit a few minutes before serving proving that sometimes the simplest preparation is the absolute best.
Watkins served seared quail with cashew and caper meuniere, fried sweet potatoes, kale chips and compressed apples.
“Each dish had a spectacular component,” says judge Bull. “The decision [of the winner] would be easy if you combine all those components into one dish.”
But in the end, Watkins, with his French Laundry-like flair, prevailed.
Chefs Under Fire is a culinary competition hosted by Keeper Collection, LLC, a publisher of digital interactive cookbooks, and Time Warner Cable Media. What started as a one-night event several years ago has expanded all over Texas. There are now three regional competitions in Dallas/Fort Work, Austin/San Antonio and Houston areas. The events benefit the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas.