By Lisa Morgan
“I’m just here for the food” is something I am known to say at many a function, but this time, I meant it literally. Having been raised on Sicilian food that was born in my Grandma Catarina’s garden, and being a card carrying member of the “Food Network Addicts Nation”, as well as cousin to Chef Terry at Lord Fletchers in Rancho Mirage, and being particularly hungry that day, I had no problem saying “Yes!” when asked to judge the Crater Lake Vodka Chefs Challenge at Fixtures Living. The competition, the first of several, running for 8 weeks, brings two local chefs to cook their dishes on the premises of Fixtures Living in Rancho Mirage. Allowed only one sous chef or assistant, they have one hour to prepare their meal and dazzle the judges. Each chef is judged in equal parts on creativity, technique, fusion, presentation and of course taste. Each week, the winner receives $100 and an opportunity to compete in the finals for a trip to the Crater Lake Distillery in Bend, Oregon.
First contestant, chef and owner of La Brasserie Bistro and Bar, Emmanuel Janin, presented us with oven roasted baby fennel and vodka risotto, “Bloody Mary” style braised Alaskan Halibut Cheeks set in a celery root, horse radish puree and garnished with tempura celery tops. Watching him work was amazing. Quick, efficient, organized, cool under pressure and intensely focused, he still managed to flash a smile and answer questions for Mix 100.5’s Bradley Ryan as well as the KDES 98.5’s Bob O’Brien. Armed with incredibly competent and efficient sous chef, Arianna Didziulis, the dishes were plated and garnished as the crowd counted down the last remaining seconds together. Having smelled the delicious aromas fanning toward me for an hour it was all I could do to sit back and let bystanders take pictures of my own, special, plate of heaven. Further testing my powers of restraint, I took uncommonly small bites, tasting everything separately and together while making scrupulous notes that included articulate words like, “Oh my gosh,” “Wow!,” and the heartfelt, “Mmmmmmm.” As fabulous as the entire meal was, I think the biggest surprise was the celery root puree. If I had not watched him prepare it myself, I might have thought it was a creamy, buttery version of mashed potatoes. The Bloody Mary reduction of heirloom tomato sauce, vodka and Tobasco was a beautiful accent to the creamy puree and the delicate halibut cheeks, braised in a lemon, crème sauce. I never enjoyed a garnish as much as I did the tempura fried celery leaves that added the perfect amount of texture when combined with the puree. The risotto, prepared with years of experience, without measuring a thing, was perfection and full of flavor and could have easily stood alone as its own main course. The poor hostess almost drew back a stub when she attempted to clear my plate. I finally relinquished it as I was reminded the second round was 60 minutes away.
I sat back in my chair, contemplating whether or not I truly was the luckiest person I knew, when with a clatter of pans and an extra-large personality “The Gooch” entered the Fixtures Living kitchen. Also known as Chef Vincent Guccione, my heart quickened when he immediately began work on dessert. His technique and style, shall I say, were quite different from his competitor. When the butter dropped on the floor, for a split second we wondered if the 5 second rule would be applied, but it wasn’t. It was swiftly kicked aside as flour flew and he began whielding a giant knife in the style of a renaissance swordsman.
The first aromas were of butter, vanilla, orange juice and Crater Lake Hazelnut Espresso vodka simmered on the immersion stove awaiting fresh, sliced, red pears and raspberry coli. There was, for me, a moment of dismay, as he set the dessert aside to prepare the main course. I was quickly put at ease as onions and tri-colored peppers began to sing to me alongside a hot, searing pan of beautiful beef tenderloins, perfectly seasoned, juices caramelizing before my very eyes. I began to doubt Gooch’s Italian heritage when I did not see pasta cooking anywhere, but only for a moment. In its stead, was another equally culturally correct accompaniment; Zucchini Pappardelle simmering gently, waiting to be served at exactly the right time. The Gooch, working in a foreign kitchen sans sous chef, was as entertaining as any kitchen host could be, managing time to tell stories, talk to radio personalities and, of course, flirt with the pretty ladies while plating fairly close to the time limit. He, under generous time keeping, finished off his wonderful dish with a splash of Crater Lake Pepper vodka (a sweet pepper infused vodka with a last minute hint of habanero) over the peppers and drizzle of Crater Lake Hazelnut Espresso vodka over the filets, giving it the perfect kiss of flavor.
The “Filet Sinatra” as Gooch called it, was perfection, the peppers and zucchini divine accompaniments. Then alas, dessert was served! The glazed pears topped a buttery, flakey puff pastry and were garnished with whipped cream, Crater Lake Hazelnut Espresso, crushed hazel nuts, raspberries and a sprig of mint. I do believe I heard angels singing “A Broken Hallelujah” as I placed the first bite in my mouth.
Who won? Well, me of course. I definitely came out the biggest winner. But of the chefs, by an extremely slim margin, Chef Emmanuel was pronounced the victor and was a gracious one at that. He will now continue on in the competition for the grand prize. Future contestants will include representatives from Westin Mission Hills, the IW Club, Sullivan’s, Europa, Stuft Pizza, Cliff House, Escena, Rockwood of J.W. Marriott and Riviera’s Circa 59.
The public is invited to join and watch. The competition is definitely fascinating and equally entertaining are RR Broadcasting’s, loveable Bradley Ryan of Mix 100.5 as well as the fabulous and funny Bob O’Brien of KDES. 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 be in every bar and kitchen in town. There are also 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.