Open Stove XXXI: Putting Your Skills To The Test

A battle between two masters of Japanese flavors, our 29th Open Stove was an epic that, despite physical challenges designed to irritate and confound the competitors, left spectators impressed. William Lindsay, sous chef at Morimoto (assisted by fellow sous Doug Allen), went head to head with Phila Lorn, sous chef at CoZara (assisted by Angelo LaBate, also of CoZara). Each team led off aggressively, plating heavy-duty amuses that left nobody wondering whether or not they were were playing to win…

Lindsay’s offering was a porky twist on a classic: soba noodles topped with pickled chanterelles concealed a wedge of smoky, pho-spiced pig’s foot terrine. A bacon dashi poured tableside made for a few smoky, rich bites. Lorn countered with equally robust umami flavors to lead off – a single fried anchovy with fried cauliflower, tomato, okra, and sliced shiitake, the little collection swimming in a heady sweet and sour soy-fish-sauce with lime.

Since starting a meal with pig’s foot and anchovy is basically a set of brass-knuckles to the mouth, it seemed fitting that metal was a key component of the surprise ingredient that the teams would have to highlight in their next courses. That’s right: canned soup by none other than Campbell’s. Team CoZara won the coin toss, so they had the first pick between tomato and cream of mushroom, opting for the former. In the end, Team Morimoto’s juniper-cured scallop crudo with roasted and raw maitake mushrooms (which grow near pine trees, hence the juniper) was actually fantastic with the salty punch of a cream of mushroom sauce amped up with leek and dried tarragon, topped with a salad of raw leek and mitsuba–a Japanese green that looks something like parsley.

Though unclear whether any of the tomato soup actually made it into Team CoZara’s dish, the dish itself was a heavy-hitter. What was is? Oh nothing, just Miyazaki, or beef from one of the most highly regarded producers of wagyu in Japan. Lorn seared and served the beef with a diver scallop, a punchy “Cambodian Chimichurri” of fresh herbs and aromatics, and a burnt cilantro and soy caramel. Where was the tomato soup? Allegedly a splash made it in to the chimichurri, and though the question was called as to whether it made a substantial enough presence, the final dish was impressive enough that nobody lingered on it for too long.

After a brief break to regroup (wherein spectators opted in or out of shots of Devil’s Cut whiskey), the teams learned that there would be (drumroll, please) NO secret ingredient that they would be expected to highlight in their entrees. Our own Jason Sheehan, Chairman Kaga for the evening, told a half-truth that since the competitors had brought such great ingredients with them that they would instead be permitted to simply show their skills–by which he meant Knife Skills 101.

Just moments into entree prep – with Lindsay pulling out dry aged duck and Lorn whacking stalks of lemongrass into submission – Sheehan interrupted the competitors. Their sous chefs would be allowed to continue prepping, but each competitor was given the task of cutting three large onions into a fine dice AND then incorporating those onions into their final dishes. Whereas Lorn minced one by one, Lindsay’s strategy was to halve, peel, and mince all of them in batches, a factor that contributed to his speed and won him the challenge.

Only moments after they had returned to cooking, the second curve-ball came. This time, to see who could slice a single cucumber into the most slices. Fingertips tucked in, both chefs made short, clattering work of the task, and Lily Cope set to counting slices. Again, Lindsay’s confidence (and forty slices from a single cucumbe), won out.

Surely, you don’t think that the madness stopped there? The next two physical challenges that the chefs were expected to complete were of the maddening variety: carving roses out of radishes (which, clearly, neither had any idea how to do) and de-stemming a bag of baby spinach.

Eventually, and largely thanks to the support of their sous chefs, each team plated impressive entrees. Team Morimoto offered slices of dry-aged duck breast atop Parisian gnocchi ribboned with shiso and mitsuba leaves, charred onion, roasted kabocha, and a spicy, funky duck and ramp kimchi nage. Equally exciting and totally different was Team CoZara’s take on ochazuke: crispy skinned salmon, rice, fermented plum, and rice puffs, all swimming in a red Cambodian curry of lemongrass, kaffir lime, shallot, and the pureed onions from the chopping challenge.

Both teams even finished strong, Lindsay plating up a composted dessert of asian pear compote, brown butter and asian pear ice cream, and pastry oak leaves. CoZara kept it simple with a little duet: tiny yuzu creme brûlées and a sake hot chocolate.

Overall, both teams presented exceptionally strong dishes, but following a recount team CoZara edged out team Morimoto, their rich combinations of Japanese and Cambodian flavors garnering enough favor with the diner-judges to overstep even the extra points secured by Lindsay in the knife skills challenges. Both chefs will live to cook another day, unencumbered by spinach stems and radish rosettes altogether.

So let’s see how the night actually looked now, shall we?

All Open Stove Coverage [f8b8z]