As we wind down to the final few weeks of competition, those that have passed the qualifying round of the Crater Lake Chef Challenge will now face off until a winner is declared. The chefs have shown amazing talent thus far, and the food has been both impressive and inspiring, coming from a guy who enjoys cooking as much as he does eating. In week eight, we watched Dave Burke of Fleming’s Steakhouse at The River in Rancho Mirage, take on Jesse Souza of Circa 59 at The Riviera in Palm Springs. Both gentlemen were eager to start immediately!
While judging this event, I am always watching to see how the chefs are able to incorporate the Crater Lake spirits into their recipes. Not only do these need to be used, they need to have relevance in the recipe. Finding creative ways for Crater Lake Vodka and Gin to enhance a recipe is what separates the rookies from the pros. If the chef can manage this feat, all that he or she needs to worry about is flavor and appearance, and a little flair in his or her techniques doesn’t hurt either.
Dave from Fleming’s prepared for his first course, Crab en Gelee, crab meat rolled in gelatin. Because everything must be made within one hour with no prior preparatory work, this dish would be a challenging one. While the flavors were appealing, the presentation fell flat as the thin layer of clear gelatin was not as firm as expected, giving a slimy appearance to the crab meat underneath. In a bold attempt to impress, Dave offered Lamb Wellington as a main course. The lamb loin was seasoned and seared, then wrapped in puff pastry dough with diced vegetables before being placed in the oven to bake. It emerged a perfect golden brown and smelled wonderful; however, the lamb was cooked nearly well done and became slightly tough in the process.
Jesse from Circa 59, in the Riviera hotel, began with salmon, served with a jicama slaw and herbed rice. The salmon was prepared with Crater Lake Hazelnut Espresso Vodka, giving it a subtly sweet flavor. The jicama slaw was tough and provided too much of a contrast in textures but the salmon was a hit, cooked just slightly under which is perfect in my opinion. His second course was oyster chowder. Oysters were prepared and set aside while the chowder had been slowly cooking on the stove top. We watched as diced potatoes, cream, seasonings and finally bacon all went into the pot. Once completed, the fried oysters were added and the chowder was garnished with a drizzle of a homemade spicy puree of peppers and Crater Lake Pepper Vodka. The hot sauce was so incredible I had to ask to take the rest home before it was wasted.
Our winner was Jesse Souza from Circa 59, with his incredible oyster chowder being the star of the show. Jesse will move on to compete with other winning chefs from around the valley over the next few weeks. Stop in to see what everyone is talking about and get the chance to try some of the food, win awesome raffle prizes and taste some Crater Lake products. Wednesdays from 4pm to 6pm, come see these talented chefs at Fixtures Living in Rancho Mirage across from The River.

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