A panel of judges awaits the finished products. And the judges and chefs are encircled by an enthusiastic group of observers, clutching drinks and shouting encouragement
BY MEGAN KAMERICK
Even for a chef, it’s an unusual combination of ingredients: Pork loin. (Sounds good.) Duck eggs. (Hmm, I’m intrigued.) And … corn smut. (Say what now?!)
It’s a Thursday night in Albuquerque, New Mexico. At the Standard Diner, chefs Raul Maestas and Dale Kester face the challenge of incorporating all three ingredients in two competing dishes each. They’ve got 60 minutes and access to the Standard Diner’s cavernous kitchen and whatever they need from the well-stocked walk-in refrigerator and prep station.
A panel of judges awaits the finished products. And the judges and chefs are encircled by an enthusiastic group of observers, clutching drinks and shouting encouragement. Welcome to the 505 Food Fight.
This round was the second in a bracket that continues every three weeks throughout the fall. It’s the brainchild of David Ruiz, the owner of Downtown restaurant Soul and Vine, and Mike Perseo, the executive corporate chef at Standard Diner, the Range Cafés and a concept destination coming soon to Bernalillo called the Freight House.
Ruiz and Perseo became fans of a similar idea showcased on the Esquire channel’s “Knife Fight” and pondered doing something similar here for a couple years. Perseo says the goals of 505 Food Fight are to inspire and spark creativity in talented Albuquerque chefs, enhancing the city’s culinary scene in the process. “I think it’s on the cusp of that,” he says. A native of Albuquerque, Perseo has also worked in Hawaii, Colorado and Arizona at various Hyatt Hotels Corp. resorts.
Ruiz hails from San Francisco and describes the Californian chef community as tight-knit. He says Albuquerque’s foodie scene seems much more compartmentalized. “It’s like there [are] cliques in the restaurant crowd,” Ruiz says. “So the goal is to create an event where chefs can come hang out together and rally around a cause.”
The revenue from the $10 ticket sales, plus the money raised by auctioning off several dishes, benefits a given charity at each event. At this Food Fight, the beneficiary was the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.
In a nod to the Wild West, chefs bring only their knives. Stacy Wilson of Just The Best Produce comes up with the mystery ingredients and donates them. Each chef must use all three ingredients in the creation of their two dishes. They’re judged on presentation, taste and creative use of ingredients.
It’s on. Raul Maestas slices pork loin and adds a bag of green chile to a pan. He has three saucepans going on the massive stove. When the poached eggs emerge, he excises the orange yolks with a cookie cutter. Maestas owns and operates a food truck called Streetfoodblvd, but he cut his culinary teeth at Hyatt Tamaya, a French restaurant and a sushi joint. For him, the challenge to come up with a new special in one hour is a real buzz.
“I like that rush, that battle, that quick mind,” Maestas says in a later interview.
He was happy to join the Food Fight in showcasing local talent. “There’s good chefs here [in Albuquerque], and nobody knows them,” Maestas says. “And there are good cooks too. In a lot of restaurants, the chefs are the stars, but it’s the three guys in back making him a star.”
At another array of burners, Dale Kester torches kale and chops onions to sauté with fresh heirloom tomatoes. Dale is the executive sous chef at Joseph’s Culinary Pub in Santa Fe. His interest in all things culinary started at an early age. Dale stood on a stool at age 6, joyously stirring roux as his mother Keyna urged him to never cease, lest he scorch the heart of all good gumbo.
Kester’s mother Keyna is in the audience. She says she exposed Dale to a range of good food early on, and it took root. “He’s modified my recipes into gorgeous dishes,” she says.
Dale Kester creates a custard with the corn smut. This ingredient, also known as huitlacoche, dates back to the Aztecs. Considered a delicacy in Mexico, it’s akin to a mushroom or truffle. Dale confesses in a later interview that it wasn’t an ingredient he was familiar with. Maestas had never seen huitlacoche, but he used it to whip up a ragout with heavy cream, parmesan, shallots and wine.
As the 30-minute warning rings out, Kester pops around the corner to ask Maestas for some white wine and green chile.
“Yeah, take it,” Maestas nods, handing him a box.
A collegial respect reigns despite the rush of competition. On the Food Fight website, there’s a tagline that reads: “No egos – just great food and great times.”
An hour into competition, Kester and Maestas deliver their dishes to the judges. Maestas plates creamy grits with blue cheese, smoked salmon and green chile topped with poached duck eggs, huitlacoche and fried sage leaves. The main course is blackened pork chops topped with the huitlacoche ragout.
Kester offers a charred kale salad with tomato vinaigrette and a poached duck egg. His grilled pork chops have a green chile-white sauce on a bed of huitlacoche custard, charred Brussels sprouts and sliced jalapeño.
Judges Daniel Marquez, the executive chef of Zacatecas; Jordan Holcomb, executive chef at Bistronomy B2B and Howie Kaibel of Yelp tally the scores and declare Maestas winner. He will go on to face Round 1 victor Sean Staggs of Los Poblanos in a later round.
“I knew he was a dark horse and had some skills,” says Perseo, who worked with Maestas at Tamaya. “I thought it could go either way.”
All in all, the event raised $850 for the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, which will host a future Food Fight round. And so on. Executive Director Travis Suazo says the proceeds will support the community garden at the IPCC, something that’s integral to educating visitors about pueblo culture. The center is also creating an indigenous seed bank.
The next 505 Food Fight takes place Thursday, Sept. 3 at tapas joint Zacatecas (3423 Central NE). The players are Cristina Martinez of the Artichoke Cafe and Elvis Bencomo of Pasión Latin Fusion. For more information, including tickets, visit 505foodfight.com.
Megan Kamerick is an independent radio and print journalist and producer at New Mexico PBS.