By Lisa Morgan
It’s good work if you can get it, judging fabulous dishes from our desert’s best chefs. But it’s a lot tougher than you would think, as week after week, challengers come within mere points of each other. The most recent competition at Crater Lakes Chef Challenge at Fixtures Living in Rancho Mirage was between Sullivan’s Steak House Chef Kevin Favinger and Chef Chris Olson of IW Club. The two chefs, sharing a kitchen, each presented an appetizer, a main course and a dessert for three judges within a one hour time limit, and were judged in equal parts on presentation, technique, fusion, creativity and of course taste. Judging the contest alongside me were radio and television personality Chef Vincent Guccione and Janet Newcomb, president of Newcomb Media.
Presented first was Chef Chris’ “Iced Canadian Fanny Bay Oysters with Crater Lake Pepper Infused Vodka Slushy” with minced shallots, natural minced ginger, pickled ginger juice, seasoned rice wine vinegar salt and pepper. These ingredients were used ever so delicately allowing the flavor of the perfectly shucked, fresh oysters to come through. Served cold, as all oysters on the half shell should be, the vodka slushy on top gave it an extra delicious chill. Chef Kevin countered this with his offering: large, sautéed, butterflied shrimp served on a creamy, bed of jalapeno cheddar polenta with Crater Lake pepper vodka braised onions, a gorgeous, flavorful meal in itself. Both chefs working splendidly in the small, limited work space showed such poise and grace considering the pressure and limits quickly winning the admiration of the judges.
IW Clubs, Chef Chris then presented his entrée: “Crater Lake Dirty Gin Martini Cured Loche Etive Salmon with Red Quinoa-Lump Crab Tabloullie.” To answer the obvious question, yes, it was as amazing as it sounds. It was a full blend of flavors and textures complimenting and not competing with the beautiful fresh salmon served on an alder wood plank emphasizing the fusion between the Crater Lake gin cure of the salmon and the gin soaked organic golden raisins in the red quinoa, lump crab taboullie. I thought to myself, how anyone could compete with this fabulous dish. Chef Kevin answered me with a plate of perfectly seared scallops served over jicama salad with vodka vinaigrette. His technique proved flawless as the scallops were cooked to perfection melting in my mouth like butter with an even richer flavor. Is there a word for perfect perfection? I ask, because this judge is running out of adjectives to describe how consummately ideal the pairing was of these scallops with the fresh salad of julienned jicama, diced red onion, red pepper, green pepper, yellow pepper, cucumber and chopped cilantro lightly dressed with Crater Lake vodka, white balsamic vinegar and fresh lime juice.
As judges, we were in trouble. There would be no easy decision in this competition unless one dessert could weigh the balance in favor of one chef. As Chef Chris set his “Crater Lake Chocolate Lava Cake with Vanilla Bean Sauce and Crater Lake Hazelnut Espresso Vodka Ganache” before me, I thought this was it. The heavens opened up to shine down on my plate and angels watched with envy as I savored every beautiful bite. Delicately crisp on the outside, soft, deep and flowing with chocolaty goodness on the inside, absolute contentment washed over me. It was absolutely (forgive me, but it’s the only word I have for it) sensuous. Yet, the competition was not over. How do you compete with an absolutely sexy dessert like this? With a cupcake! Yes! You compete with a Gin and Tonic cupcake topped with a delicious mascarpone icing in a bright fun green, sided by a matching icing shooter. What our first dessert had going for it in sex appeal, this dessert matched with fun, frivolity, originality and personality. The cupcake, had its own angelic appeal made with egg whites, sea salt, cream of tartar, powdered sugar and tonic water and was topped with a light green mascarpone cheese icing blended with Crater Lake Gin, corn syrup and powdered sugar. That same delicious topping floated in the “Green Rocket” shooter (a combination of Amaretto, Crater Lake Gin and seltzer) making it dangerously easy to consume.
Truly, there was no way to know who would come out the winner. As my neighboring judge, Janet Newcomb, eloquently put it, these chefs presented the judges with “more than just a pretty plate”. Not being much of a “flesh eater” herself, Janet complimented each chef in their vegetable contributions as each “were different in flavor, color and texture and individually creative”. And I have to ad this note about our two competitors; both showed so much class and composure during the entire competition with fluid, non-pulsed, focused attention to their craft while exhibiting lovely tableside manner. They were both a pleasure to watch and get to know as they amazed us with their art.
Ultimately a winner had to be named. While I still claim that the judges are hands down the winners in this event, once the scores were tallied, the winner by only a couple of points was Chef Kevin Favinger of Sullivan’s Steak House in Palm Desert. Chef Kevin will now compete in the semifinals against future contestants that may include representatives from Solano’s in La Quinta, Westin Mission Hills, Europa, Stuft Pizza, Cliff House, Escena, Rockwood of J.W. Marriott and Riviera’s Circa 59.
The public definitely has a fabulous time watching the competition. Equally entertaining are RR Broadcastings, Bradley Ryan of Mix 100.5 Bob O’Brien of KDES 98.5. There is a cash bar on site where you can sample the amazing fusions of Crater Lake Vodka, of which I am thoroughly convinced, should stock every bar and kitchen in town as well as hors d’oeuvres provided by Rio Azul. The Chef Challenge will take place at 4 pm at Fixtures Living in Rancho Mirage, every Wednesday until the finals November 7. If you would like a copy of these exquisite recipes, email me at lisa@coachellavalleyweekly and I’ll be happy to smuggle them to you! Fixtures Living is located at 71905 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage (760) 646-8220.