On a night when almost everyone at NECI on Main was a critic the restaurant’s diners could have decided a friendly competition between two acclaimed French chefs who are both former winners of the popular Food Network show “Chopped!”
In a way they did, though not in a manner that anyone could have anticipated when they settled in for a Chopped!-style challenge between two of the show’s former champions — Jean-Louis Gerin, who took over as the New England Culinary Institute’s vice president of culinary operations and its executive chef after winning his first Chopped! challenge in 2012, and Chef Olivier de Saint Martin, who owns two Philadelphia restaurants and won Chopped! in 2011.
Flash forward to Saturday, when with the help of ORCA Media, a couple of cameras in the kitchen and several strategically placed screens in the dining room, the folks at NECI on Main sought to simulate a Chopped! challenge between two chefs who were intimately familiar with the format.
It wasn’t exactly like Chopped! because, well, no one got “chopped,” an over-sized $10,000 check didn’t change hands at the end of the evening, there was only one basket of “mystery ingredients” and the panel of three judges didn’t have the star power of Food Network regulars like “Alex” Guarnaschelli, Geoffrey Zakarian or Amanda Freitag.
The judges — Seven Days’ food writer Alice Levitt, NECI alum Mark Berry of Reinhart Foodservice, and one of NECI’s promising young “student-ambassadors,” Erika Carsella — didn’t even have the sole say. Based on a pre-arranged format feedback from the restaurant’s 67 paying customers accounted for a 30 percent share of the scoring.
That 30 percent could have been decisive in what was just about as close to a culinary dead heat as it could get from the judges’ perspective.
However, in a statistically mind-boggling turn of events the “foodies” picked the winner because diners, who joined them in rating the appetizers and entrees prepared by Gerin and St. Martin on “presentation, creativity and taste” judged it a flat-footed tie.
The improbable result had NECI Manager Neil Archibald shaking his head after running the numbers several times on the calculator while judges and diners alike enjoyed dessert — a rhubarb trio — that was prepared by NECI students.
Gerin, who narrowly squandered a home kitchen advantage and what was widely viewed as a better batch of ingredients — bronzino (black bass), bok choy, club soda and fortune cookies — for his appetizer, could have used a dessert round to turn the tables on St. Martin who wound up winning the two-course competition by four-tenths of a point.
It was very much a come-from-behind win for St. Martin, who judges and several diners agreed drew the short straw in an appetizer round that required both chefs to recreate dishes from their respective winning appearances on Chopped!
For St. Martin that meant making duck liver, blue cheese, green papaya and hard lemon candy sing on the plate — a feat he pulled off, even if though the judges agreed it lacked a little acidity. Gerin’s bass appetizer — fortune cookies and all — was texturally superior and generally a better dish Levitt said, though St. Martin trailed by only one-tenth of a point on the judges’ cards with one round down and one round to go.
Enter the dreaded “mystery basket” — the one Archibald said he wanted to fill with either ostrich or emu, kumquats, baking soda and maple candy only to be out-voted by NECI Chef/Instructors Andre Burnier and David Parson.
The ingredients — pork tenderloin, coriander seeds, black licorice, cantaloupe, and a yet-to-be-released Crottin goat cheese from Vermont Creamery — were only somewhat less forgiving.
St. Martin made the most of those mystery ingredients, which he paused to ponder after they were unveiled in the dining room and he and Gerin headed back into the kitchen.
You don’t have that luxury on Chopped! and Gerin didn’t take it, huddling almost immediately to discuss his strategy with Chef Joni Bales and the team of five NECI students who were assigned to him at the outset of the competition.
The concept of several helping hands in the kitchen was perhaps the biggest departure from the Chopped! format, but Archibald noted contestants on the Food Network show are only preparing four plates – three for the judges and one for the host.
“We’re serving 70 (people),” he said.
In 30 minutes Gerin and his team turned the mystery ingredients into a grilled pork chop topped with a licorice, veal and crème fraiche sauce, and served with a Crottin goat cheese macaroni and cheese, licorice pickled cantaloupe, and a licorice tomato compote.
St. Martin countered with a licorice and coriander-crusted pork tenderloin served over brussel sprouts with pancetta, and sauced with cantaloupe and beet puree. The dish included a potato and goat cheese croqueta that could have been the difference-maker.
The judges clearly liked both dishes.
“We cleaned both plates,” Levitt joked.
However, Carsella said they gave the edge to St. Martin because his dish was “more elegant,” the flavor of the licorice was “more prevalent,” his sauce was “crisp,” and the decision to incorporate the goat cheese into a croqueta was “more creative.”
That was the consensus view of the four-top next door, though Waitsfield residents Jack Himmelsbach disagreed with the judges and his three tablemates. He said he favored Gerin’s handling of the pork, appreciated the larger chop, compared to the admittedly elegant medallions and, as a fan of comfort food, was pleased to see macaroni and cheese on the plate.
“I thought it was delicious,” he said.
There was room for debate among a trio of “Cooks” from Washington D.C. who are “touring Vermont during spring break.”
Brent Cook, his wife, Adrienne, and their 15-year-old daughter, Alice, flew into Boston at noon on Saturday, hopped in a car and got off the Montpelier exit to check out Morse Farm and were poking around town when they spotted a steady stream of folks entering the NECI-run restaurant.
“I said: ‘Look what they’ve got going on tonight, that looks neat, let’s check it out,’” Brent Cook said.
Their timing couldn’t have been better.
Though Saturday’s dinner was a reservations-only affair, a last-minute cancellation created an opening and the Cooks promptly snapped up a table.
“We’re hoping to make this a fun trip and we’re off to a good start in Vermont,” Brent Cook said while enjoying the dessert trio prepared by students.
As for the meal?
The family from Washington, D.C., all favored Gerin’s sea bass appetizer — a fairly predictable result according to Brent Cook.
“I don’t that they could have done anything to duck liver that would make you like it,” he told his wife.
Like the judges, Brent Cook said he gave a slight edge to St. Martin’s entrée, but his wife and daughter weren’t sure they agreed.
“I liked both of them,” said Adrienne Cook, who favored Gerin’s pork and pickled cantaloupe, bur really enjoyed St. Martin’s brussel sprouts and pancetta.
“That was excellent,” she said.
If it was a tie, Alice Cook said she couldn’t break it, because, like her mom, she preferred Gerin’s grilled pork chop, but found St. Martin’s brussel sprouts and croqueta equally memorable.
“They were both so good,” she said.
The bustling kitchen was fun to watch on the big screens for diners like the Cooks who admired the knife skills, and cooking techniques of chefs and students alike and enjoyed watching their meals come together one course at a time.
“This is great,” Brent Cook said. “We’re hoping to make this a fun trip and we’re off to a good start in Vermont.”
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