Top (Sustainable) Chef

As part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Cooking for Solutions events, three Top Chef alums duked it out in an Iron Chef-style cook-off featuring, of course, sustainable seafood. I don’t usually partake in the seafood challenge at Cooking for Solutions–I find the cooking showcase a little impersonal. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer more intimate events where you can chat up the chefs and (more importantly) taste some of their delicious food. But as soon as I saw the lineup for this year’s seafood challenge, I was sold. I mean how could I pass up an opportunity to watch Top Chef alums competing cooking?!?!

Carla Hall preparing food for the seafood challenge.

This year’s seafood challenge brought together Top Chef alums Casey Thompson (Brownstone Restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas), Bryan Voltaggio (VOLT Restaurant in Maryland) and Carla Hall (Alchemy catering in DC), along with sustainable seafood champion Anthony Lamas (Seviche Restaurant in Kentucky). Providing commentary during the competition were Chris Cosentino (known for his use of offal at San Francisco’s Incanto restauant) and Lynne Rosetto Kasper (from The Splendid Table). The judges included John Ash, Virginia Willis and Sam Choy.

After grabbing some cheese–OK, LOTS of cheese–to sustain myself during the seafood challenge, I got a seat pretty close to front and center, only a little less front than I’d like, I had a good view of the action. (Except I’m not sure whose bright idea it was to put the judges in the center and elevate them on a platform . . . then block them with a GIANT centerpiece of ingredients. Odd. And annoying.)

The seafood arrives!

The “secret ingredient” in the challenge turned out to be not so secret: local, sustainable seafood from the Monterey Bay. Um, big surprise there, only not. The chefs had an hour to cook up a delicious dish with local seafood stars like salmon, mussels and squid (calamari). While officially they only had to prepare one dish, many chefs opted to churn out more than one–obviously they didn’t remember that overachieving like that didn’t always win them points on Top Chef!

It was great fun watching the chefs run back and forth picking up ingredients from the centerpiece, choosing all sorts of foods from mushrooms to fava beans. The chefs had a grand old time cooking up a storm while the audience sat back and relaxed with cheese, desserts and wine. God, it must have been torture for the chefs watching us chuckling as they raced against the clock to complete their dishes.

Anthony Lamas went right for the salmon.

Anthony Lamas was the first to grab the salmon. Check out his dish here, on Virginia Willis’ Twitpic account. (I was bummed the audience didn’t get to see any of the dishes–not even on a mirrored stage. Thank god Virginia tweeted photos for us to spy over her shoulder!) Anthony’s raw salmon preparation won praise for its bold–and spicy–flavors. He’s known for his bold ceviches at his restaurant, aptly–though annoyingly–named Seviche.

Bryan Voltaggio cracks open a beer--and he swore some of it would be used in his dish eventually.

Bryan Voltaggio made a salmon paired with savory steel-cut oats, in an homage to his roots. I have to say, pairing oats with salmon was a little unexpected and while I would never have thought of such a combination, it actually feels very logical now that I think of it. Of course Bryan’s dish was more complicated than *just* salmon. Before the challenge, he apparently foraged some “wild” fennel from the recreational trail, as well as some seaweed from the beach below the host hotel. Neither would have been my choice–I’ve seen how many people use the rec trail as an outdoor loo, and god only knows what’s in the water coming from the waterfront hotels. Yikes! Luckily, the fennel was used only for smoking the fish and the seaweed was well washed before getting used. Both of these unusual ingredients added a unique flair to Bryan’s dish. And this dish certainly kept true to Bryan’s edgy, unexpected cuisine–much like the smoked sablefish with flavors of everything bagel he made for the Cooking for Solutions gala the night before. Bryan had a blast, even calling up an audience member to server as his sous chef while cooking. (Geez, talk about pressure! Luckily, the beers they both downed probably helped with that.)

Carla had a great time cooking--and working the crowd!

Carla put on quite the show at the cookoff–she was definitely working the crowd. She and Casey both had a more laid-back approach to the cookoff than Anthony and Bryan. Carla is clearly at home in front of the camera and spent time chatting up the audience and both commentators. She regaled us with amusing stories and of course her signature one-liners–Hootie hoo!–throughout the challenge. Carla made two dishes–a raw salmon dish that she whipped out at the last minute and a (pea?) soup topped with a sauteed scallop. Yes, Carla did a soup. No surprise there, she was known for her soups on Top Chef–and in fact was very frank and unapologetic about sticking to what she was good at.

Casey Thompson picking her ingredients.

Casey was paired up with local “celebrity” chef Dory Ford of Aqua Terra Culinary catering. Both of them were focused on putting together their dishes for the judges, but also working the crowd when they came up for air. The two of them whipped up two dishes. The judges’ favorites was a squid stuffed with crab and fried. As you can see from the picture, this was equally as much an art piece as it was a plate of food. Casey and Dory also made a salmon tartare. Like Carla, Casey had a good time working the crowd–and reminding host Lynne Rosetto that her name was Casey, not Corey. (More on that in a second!)

Carla took home the award for Best Showmanship--no surprise there!

The judges nibbled on bites of each dish, but in the end, they took a cop-out, feel-good approach to doling out awards. Rather than naming a true Top Chef for the evening, they merely presented awards like “Most Original” or “Best Showmanship” to make sure everyone got an award for the evening, much like kindergarten. I would have appreciated a competition with a little more guts behind it in the end.

Commentators Chris Cosentino and Lynne Rosetto Parker grilling Carla Hall.

The chefs were highly entertaining–just as much fun as the running commentary from the hosts, Chris Cosentino and Lynne Rosetto Parker. Chris offered insightful and entertaining commentary, chatting with the chefs to learn more about their dishes, their insiprations, questions from the audience. Lynne Rosetto, well, let’s just say she liked to talk . . . and talk . . . and talk. Honestly, she dominated the mic the whole time, giving us story after story. Sure, some were interesting, but others got a little long-winded. I guess when you’re on the radio, you’re a talker, but I wish more of the chefs could have gotten a word in.

Chris sneaks a beer after he's relieved of his commentator duties by Carla.

In the end though, I had a grand old time at the challenge. It was great fun watching the Top Chef alums sweat it out, even if they weren’t competing for any real prizes or titles. They are all clearly good showmen and women, and it was great seeing their focus and pride shine through while they worked.

And in a flash, I snuck out the back to head over to the airport, jetting from this feast of sustainable seafood to Texas. Yes, Texas. But we’ll save those stories for another day!

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