The only thing missing was Padma Lakshmi.
Everything else about the Quickfire Challenge held Saturday at Whole Foods Market’s Henderson location had the makings of a true Top Chef competition: a handful of talented chef’testants, a sprinkle of smack talk and the creation of culinary delights under a strict time limit.
The event was the first of its kind, held to help launch the new Quickfire Wines Cabernet and Chardonnay, which are featured on Top Chef, whose current season was filmed in Las Vegas. Four talented local chefs – Jet Tila from Encore’s Wazuzu (the Weekly’s Top Chef celebrity blogger), Rene Lenger from Encore’s Switch, Jean Paul Labadie from Marché Bacchus and Kuldeep Singh from Origin India – joined Whole Foods Market chef Bianca Freeny for the competition.
Not surprisingly, the contestants were asked to create a dish that paired well with the two new wines. In true Top Chef form, the contestants pulled knives to reveal their proteins. Some were happy with their selections, some not so much. Tila’s secret ingredient (his hot-sour-sweet Yum Sauce) and his flair for Asian cooking is a natural fit for seafood, so pulling halibut pleased the Wazuzu chef. Meanwhile, Labadie’s choice of chicken breast proved slightly worrisome, because, as he put it, “Chicken is boring.”
After selecting their proteins, the chefs were given 15 minutes to select ingredients from the makeshift pantry and choose two extra ingredients from the shelves of Whole Food Markets. True professionals, none of the chefs needed the full time and were anxious to heat up their portable stoves and go. When the cooking began, the improvised kitchen filled with the sounds and smells of top-rated restaurants, and the applause and cheers of excited friends and Top Chef fans.
Freeny of Whole Foods opted for a classic steak and black garlic mashed potatoes meal, while Labadie of Marché Bacchus went for a chicken roulade stuffed with mushrooms, spinach and leeks and wrapped in bacon. Two of the more complicated dishes, both chefs raced to finish within the allotted amount of time. Tila, explaining he wanted to represent Wazuzu, altered an entrée on the Encore restaurant’s menu to create a halibut curry with yum sauce. Meanwhile, his Encore brethren, Lenger, offered his center-cut pork on the bone. Finally, Singh prepared scallops, and his secret ingredient, vindaloo sauce from Origin India, was already ready to go. The chef finished in record time, plating and serving the dish before judge Carrot Top had even arrived. (Luckily, City Life food critic Al Mancini filled in for the comedian.)
Challenge dish completed, Singh pleased the crowd by preparing more scallops and offering samples to the now-ravenous onlookers, who filled the small cooking area and spilled into the outlying aisles. Following suit, all the chefs offered up leftovers to their personal cheering sections.
According to Jenny Wagner, the Las Vegas metro marketing supervisor for Whole Foods Market, the grocery store hopes to make this Quickfire Challenge an annual event, possibly introducing a charity element in the future. Another noted possible change: Moving the location from the center of the Whole Foods Markets to a side parking lot or adjacent space. Any customer who wanted gluten-free products or one of the market’s plethora of vinegars had to deal with the throng of observers, which was larger than the organizers and chefs had anticipated.
Judging the competition were comedian Carrot Top, KLAS news anchor Denise Valdez, KNPR food critic John Curtas and RM Seafood chef Adam Sobel, who filled in for fellow RM Seafood chef and Top Chef: Masters participant Rick Moonen. None offered the biting criticism of Tom Colicchio, but the judges made polite critiques of the dishes. Curtas told Tila that the “umph” was missing from his dish, though Valdez disagreed. Meanwhile, Lenger’s pork was slightly overcooked, Sobel noted.
Carrot Top was less discerning. “All food that’s free is good,” was his scholarly take.
In the end, it was Labadie’s chicken roulade that won the judges’ hearts, stomachs and even eyes. Valdez noted that the Marché Bacchus chef offered up the best looking presentation, adding, “And it tastes as good as it looks.”
Not bad for such a “boring” protein.
It was Labadie’s first time competing Quickfire-style, but he says he felt no nerves before or during the competition. Working in an open kitchen and being used to customers watching and asking questions helps, he explained. Not facing elimination, a slew of cameras and Toby Young’s one-liners probably help, too.
Singh’s scallops in vindaloo sauce earned an honorable mention by the judges. Proving that winning dishes do not have to be time-consuming to create if perfectly executed. “I can’t complain,” Singh said after his second-place finish. “These are cutting edge chefs. It was good fun.”