About Last Night: I Heart You THIS Much…

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome once again to the drama, the suspense, the creativity (and the aftermath) of Philadelphia’s own cutthroat culinary competition! February 4th brought the 34th edition of Open Stove to COOK, this time a head-to-head fight to the death* between Geno Betz of Paradiso and Dominic Santora of Kanella.

There was laughter. There were tears. There were chicken hearts and candy. And luckily, I was there to document it all. So here’s how the night played out.

Guests arrived and the cooks started off strong, plating two amuse bouches that immediately illustrated the differences between their styles. Betz (assisted by Sean Korcal of Bardot Cafe), displayed refined sensibilities, offering a first bite as well as a first sip: a few ounces of bright pink blood orange margarita in a glass rimmed with chili sugar, accompanied by a bonbon of blood orange semifreddo wrapped in smoky speck.

Meanwhile, Dominic and his Kanella compatriot, Evan Butkovsky, were frying up quenelles of scallop mousse to serve in a saffron consommée, topped with a shower of shaved bottarga.

The plot thickened when our own Jason Sheehan debuted the first mandatory secret ingredient that each cook would be required to feature in his second course. Unfortunately for them, this ingredient is less something that people want to eat and more an obligatory nod to the season: candy hearts, both the chalky “conversation” variety as well as a far more sinister bubble gum flavored version. Plus, since nothing says “I love you” like a little co-dependence, Sheehan decided that the chefs would be forced to cook while tied together with a length of grosgrain ribbon (trés romantique!).

Chalky candies or no, each of the cooks soldiered on, joined, literally, at the hip and at some points leaning far, far away from one another to cook and plate their appetizer courses. Bukovsky set to chopping, reducing the conversation hearts to a kind of pastel dust–rainbow confetti that the pair used to garnish their plate of eggplant and pine nut stuffed and yogurt-marinated lamb roulade, served with tehina and a pomegranate-studded tabouli. The dish, though obviously delicious (being that it seemed straight out of the Kanella playbook) failed to make much use of that contest curve ball.

On the other side of the counter, conversation hearts rattled around in the blender, a component to a candy heart gastrique and a conversation heart vinaigrette. Though Betz can’t have known that the sweet ingredient would play nicely with his prepared lobster sausage with leek, kimchi chip and sauce Américaine, work they did. Or at least they didn’t clash terribly.

A break and a round of tequila shots later and Sheehan and Lily Cope revealed a doozy of a challenge for round two: more hearts. Four varieties of them. The assignment was for each cook to prepare a meal that featured romaine hearts, artichoke hearts, hearts of palm, and a big, slippery bowl of chicken hearts.

Now untethered, they set to work immediately, draining cans, grilling romaine, and pulling out the proteins they had brought with them. From Dominic, a pan of pheasant leg confit set on a burner to warm and skewers of pheasant breast and bacon sharing space on the grill with ribs of romaine. Betz sent Bukovsky dashing downstairs to fry up neat chicken ballotines, browning their chicken hearts off to make a sauce.

In the end, the plates looked dramatically different. Betz was the pride of the new Passyunk, plating up elegant chicken ballontine complete with crispy skin. His hash of sunchoke, heart of palm, artichoke heart, and grilled romaine puree worked like it’d been his plan all along, the brininess of the canned vegetables coming across as an intentional pre-seasoning to their smoky flavor. A chicken-heart fortified red wine sauce added depth matched by a cocoa-dusted sunchoke chip garnish.

Santora smilingly announced his own offering: a protein feast featuring a whole leg of pheasant and a skewer of marinated pheasant breast, crossed as demurely as possible over a salad of pea shoots, hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, grilled romaine, a shower of preserved lemon, and a drizzle of chicken heart demiglace.

For dessert, each chef got a little cozy. Sanatoria offered a phyllo wrapped milk pie with barley scented with orange blossom. Betz? He cooked each guest an individual chocolate hazenut soufflé. Like it was no big deal.

The victory, as it often is, was a close one, but Santora’s Mediterranean flavors and meaty portions took home the glory. Because if there’s one thing that you should have on Valentine’s Day, it’s an abundance of meat.

*not really

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