Basic food-prep instructors are forever telling their culinary-school charges that organization is the most important skill a chef can possess. At last night's Voracious Tasting & Food Awards, Seth Caswell of Emmer & Rye proved them right.
Caswell claimed his second consecutive victory in the annual event's Chef Showdown, successfully fending off a challenge from Rachel Yang of Joule and Revel. Caswell bested Yang by 30 points, a remarkably slim margin of victory in a contest for which 400 points constitutes a perfect score.
Caswell was aided immensely by Yang's inability to complete her fourth dish. The chefs were asked to create four dishes using pork, but Yang only submitted three dishes to the judging panel. As one of those judges, I found myself wishing Yang had sacrificed her exacting standards and plopped a strip of bacon on a plate just to pick up a few sympathy points. The quality of her food was so high that she deserved to be the winner.
Since I judged the contest in disguising sunglasses that made me blind as a mole--and since participating bars and liquor distributors generously kept the panel in cocktails--I didn't attempt to take tasting notes. But the dishes we sampled were so terrific that it's impossible to forget them. (OK, I completely blanked on Caswell's second submission. Fortunately, my fellow judge and Voracious contributor Julien Perry has a sharper memory than I do.)
Caswell began the evening with a green salad, doused in a creamy dressing and garnished with bacon. Yang took a more playful approach, presenting a salty riff on pork and beans that beautifully elevated the traditional canned meal.
For Caswell's second course, he again went the bacon-topped route, strewing bacon across a salad of pickled vegetables. Yang stuck with her one-pot references, burrowing two perfectly cooked nuggets of fried pork tenderloin into a bed of grits.
I asked Yang whether we were supposed to tackle her third course, a pork biscuit, with our hands or utensils. "Silverware," she said. "There's a lot of stuff in there." I think I'd hoped she'd give me clearance to get messy with her sandwich, which had a gloriously distinctive hog flavor and featured a flaky biscuit that would make a Southern girl a hot marriage prospect.
Caswell responded with a dish of pork, pesto, and potatoes, saving perhaps his best entry for the fourth round: His pasta dish was so popular with the judges that a few of them whined when the clean-up crew whisked away their unfinished portions. It was certainly a dish worthy of a reigning Showdown champion.
We here at Voracious wish to congratulate both chefs, and hope to see them again at next year's Tasting. Many thanks to Caswell, Yang, PCC (which provided the secret pork cuts and other groceries), emcee Tom Douglas, and those of you who joined us to make the Showdown a fantastic event. We'll see you next year.