About Last Night: They Do It On Top Chef All The Time…

After 41 Open Stove nights at COOK, we were looking for a new challenge for the chefs. And we found one.

We’ve been doing Open Stove nights at COOK for a long time now. We call it episode 41, but really there have been more like 45, maybe 50. There are a few early ones and a few weird ones that just never seem to make the count. Call them the Lost Open Stoves.

But regardless, we’ve done a lot of these. And for this one–a battle between crews from Local 44 and Rex 1516–we were looking for a new sort of challenge for the chefs. Something we hadn’t done before. And at the very last minute, we decided to do someting that I’ve been wanting to try for a long time now. A challenge crippling enough that, when I first announced it, midway through the appetizer round, the chefs and their sous just kind of stood there for a minute, assuming I was kidding.

Chefs Eli Collins (no, not that one. The one from Local 44) and Jake Herman (of Rex 1516) got through the amuse bouche course easy. Jake did a guacamole deviled egg with Cape May sea salt. Eli did something fancy with broccoli and potatoes and anchovy sour cream. And they were feeling good–relaxed, confident. Obviously, we couldn’t let that continue.

So when the first competitive course began, we came right out with their secret ingredients–things with numbers in them (ya know, like their restaurants), which meant chocolate (60% cacao) and Chinese 5-spice powder. Again, they were unflustered, smoothly working the new ingredients into the dishes they’d been planning since the beginning of the night.

Which was why, exactly halfway through the allotted time, I came up to the stage and told them to put down their utensils, switch sides and finish the other team’s dish. Everyone thought I was kidding. I was not. And the results were…interesting.

Team local 44 started out with beautiful quail, some dashi, mushrooms brought in special for the event–all kinds of really nice things. Team Rex 1516 had…purple good in a pan. That purple goop was actually the beginning of a blue grits spoonbread with pickled jalapenos and was probably never designed to have chocolate drizzled over the top of it, but that’s what we ended up with. That and a splayed quail with some grilled mushrooms (but no dashi or anything else), topped with 5-spice and grated chocolate.

Both dishes were actually pretty good. They were even better together. And from that point on, now that we had the chefs rattled, the night proceeded in what I consider a normal fashion–with shouting, stress, hard liquor, bribery and last-minute solutions to unexpected problems. So basically a microcosm of my life, which is what we’re aiming for with every good Open Stove night.

(That’s Eli’s dad, by the way. He showed up to take some pictures of his son at work, so we invited him in to celebrate with us.)

(If you look close, you’ll see the three foundational elements of modern cookery present in this photo: tattoos, High Life and cat aprons.)

In the end, Team Local 44 and Eli Collins (who, just as a side note, recently graduated from our most recent COOK Masters Program) took home the prize. This month, victory wasn’t so much about winning as it was surviving the challenges with your vision (and dignity) intact. You know, like all great nights are.

So congrats to both teams. They performed admirably under weird pressure and turned out food that was amazing, creative, delicious and…purple. And we’ll be back again in a couple months.

Just wait and see what we have in store for the chefs then.

Open Stove [All Open Stove coverage]