About Last Night: Show Us Your Cans!

Potted meat! Impossible secret ingredients! Tequila shots! Yes, Open Stove V descended on COOK last night, pitting sous chef Greg Garbacz from Sbraga against Smoke Truck chef and pickle-man Ryan Harrison in a 4-round, do-or-die battle for ultimate culinary supremacy.

The COOK crew was there to keep the crowd well-lubricated with drinks. Art and I were on hand to screw with the chefs, complicate their tasks and do our best to make them cry like little girls in full view of the public. And in the end, we crowned one man victorious. Here’s how things shook out, as told in photos–courtesy of COOK’s own Yoni Nimrod.

As always, amuse bouches were brought (more or less) pre-prepped by the chefs. And last night, Team Sbraga even came with their own customized tiny pizza boxes. The cool thing about this? The pepperoni was pureed to make the sauce and the tomatoes were dried and spiced to act as the pepperoni.

Team Smoke Truck went with the wisdom that there is no such thing as a bad taco. And they were right–these little suckers were delicious, a perfect balance of spiced meat and vegetable sweetness.

First secret ingredient: Sweetened condensed milk. And you know what was awesome about this? Unless you’re making a Vietnamese coffee (or maybe an over-sweet curry), there’s just not a lot you can do with this stuff. It is so thick and so sweet that it overpowers virtually everything it touches–especially the delicate fish that both teams brought for their first course.

“Uh, dude? What the fuck are we gonna do with this stuff?”

This is what it looks like when a chef has NO FRIGGN’ IDEA what to do next. Being the masochistic bastard that I am, I took great pleasure in this moment–as did the crowd.

And this is what it looks like when the panic fades and a chef’s talent for improvisation takes over. Dinner has to get on the table no matter what–that’s pretty much the chef’s mantra. It’s also the defining mentality of every Open Stove night. We’re here to watch what a chef does when all his carefully laid plans fall to pieces, and to cheer the genius that sometimes comes from the wreckage.

The funny thing about this shot? Team Sbraga brought pre-made crabcakes with them to the event. They’d assembled them in their own kitchen and brought them all ready to hit the saute pan. That, unfortunately, is against the rules, so we seized their crabcakes as contraband (they were delicious) and gave them some high-quality canned crab in their place. So what did the guys do? They made crabcakes. It didn’t show a lot of improvisational brilliance, but I can also respect dogged determination. No matter what we’d given them, Team Sbraga was going to make a cake out of it. Give ’em crab? Crabcakes. Give ’em chicken? Chickencakes. Give ’em fish? Fishcakes. And all of them with a sweetened condensed milk aioli.

One half of the appetizer course from Team Smoke Truck–hamachi sashimi over thin-sliced garden tomatoes sprinkled with pink Hawaiian sea salt which was a secondary secret ingredient that we sprung on the chefs at the last minute.

“Really, chef? Smiley faces again?”

The final plate from Team Sbraga, crabcake intact.

The second secret ingredient–at which point it became obvious why we were calling this Battle Cans. Again, both chefs were somewhat flummoxed because broth had brought very high-end proteins to use for their mains and couldn’t think how a nice pork loin could possibly work with SPAM. One of their major problems? Both chefs claimed to have never tasted the stuff before, which is just shameful. SPAM is an iconic American ingredient and not NEARLY as bad as its reputation. Which I then went on to prove by offering SPAM shots (chunks of SPAM, floating in a shot glass with various alcohols) to anyone in the crowd who would drink with me.

That’s me, doing the Lord’s work. Spreading good taste wherever I go…

What’s wrong with this picture? Yes, that is the Team Sbraga sous chef working with Ryan from the Smoke Truck (who, by the way, also did time with John Besh, Michael Mina and Jason Cichonski at Ela–something Team Sbraga were unaware of when the contest started). Halfway through the third course I decided that these guys had it a little too easy, so made them swap sous chefs–which, to a chef, is tantamount to losing your right hand and having some stranger’s foot sewed on in its place.

Third course from Team Sbraga/Smoke Truck. The SPAM was finely-diced and mixed in with the salad–which was a bit of a cowardly move, in my opinion, but whatever…

And this is the third course from Team Smoke Truck/Sbraga–a stuffed and deep-fried squash blossom, rare beef and a tomato salad with little bits of SPAM hidden in it. Again, not a terribly innovative used of canned meat. I mean, who wouldn’t have stuffed the SPAM into the squash blossom with a little cheese and fried that sucker up. That would’ve been delicious.

A late arriving special guest star: Kevin Sbraga dropped in to check on his guys and scold them for trying to break the rules with that whole crabcake thing. Wonder what he would’ve done with the SPAM…?

Dessert was another pre-prepped course, delivered while the crowd was voting (and drinking).

And in the end, despite some early-round complications, it was Team Sbraga who came out on top–kicking ass, taking names, and assuring themselves a spot in our upcoming Open Stove Champions Battle. Watch this spot for more information because it is going to be awesome.

Sbraga [Official website]

Smoke Truck [Official website]

Famous Chefs Cooking with SPAM [Time magazine]