We have done a LOT of Open Stove nights at COOK. The official count is 46, but that number seems low to me. But even if we accept that figure, that means four years of Open Stove. 184 cooks in our Thunderdome. 92 winners and 92 losers and 368 courses and countless numbers of shots.
In all that time, we have had some great dishes. We have had some terrible dishes, too, but most of them have been better than they had any right to be, considering we were making the chefs work with Swedish Fish, Fruity Pebbles, with their hands tied behind their backs, or blindfolded. We have screwed with our contestants mercilessly because I firmly believe that chefs possess some of the greatest, most creative minds on earth, but that their unique version of greatness and creativity is only brought out under stress. The greater the stress, the greater the genius. And these past four years of Open Stove have been like our own private laboratory in which we prove that every month.
Last night’s contest? In a way, it was no different than 45 that have come before. Four rounds, multiple courses, tricks, booze, shenanigans–it had all the requisite pieces. In one way, it was very different: We had bartenders competing instead of chefs. And in one way, it was the most surprising ever because last night’s Open Stove came about as close as I think we’re ever going to get to the perfect contest.
For starters, we had both an upstairs/downstairs rivalry and a battle of the sexes in our contestants–Dominic Carullo and Mikey Buonocore from Oyster House versus Resa Mueller and Christina Rando of Mission Taqueria, which is right upstairs. They were friends. They’ve been working together for a while. They knew each others moves and each others tricks.
They began with a prepared drink–a milk punch from Team Oyster, which they’d worked on (and geeked out over) for three days, and a jalapeno margarita from Team Taco which came rimmed (brilliantly) with fried Cool Ranch chicharrones. Anyone who can find a way to add pork to a cocktail without making it gross is automatically my friend, and the shakers from Mission were my new besties. At least for the first ten minutes.
Next, we gave them access to a full bar of spirits donated by local distillers–some gins from Bluecoat, a Kinsey rye, vodka from Stateside and spiced Driftwood Dream rum from Cooper River–and presented them with a challenge: Two awful bottles of liquor–one for each team–which had to be used as a base for a cocktail that wouldn’t suck. The Oysters got sour watermelon vodka. The Tacos got salted caramel vodka. There was no way either of them should’ve been able to make anything that didn’t taste like melted Jolly Ranchers or an alcoholic marshmallow, respectively, and yet they did. The Oysters whipped out a carbonation gun and made bright, fresh, sparkling watermelon cocktail that wasn’t at all as awful as it should have been. As a matter of fact, it was good. The Tacos went smoky, adding scotch to balance out the chemical sweetness and weird salt notes of their disgusting bottle and came up with something which wasn’t just a great drink, but one that I would’ve drunk without complaint if it was served to me across the bar somewhere.
After that? Well, after that things get a little blurry. There was a trivia contest. Some dancing. A very brief sing-along. We made the bartenders work with ingredients common at their opponent’s bars–gin and horseradish for Mission, tequila and chile in adobo for Oyster House–and, once again, they killed it, knocking out eighteen excellent cocktails each in just nine minutes. As a surprise course, we had them make shots out of a bottle of Bailey’s Pumpkin Spice cream whiskey which, again, should’ve all been absolutely terrible, but came out only moderately terrible which, I think, is a goddamn miracle.
At the end of the night, a simple request. Use anything at your disposal and make me the best cocktail you can. The catch? It had to have a great name and be inspired by something uniquely Philadelphian. And while I can’t recall precisely what either side did, I do remember commenting to one of the bartenders (or maybe a guest, or possibly a light fixture) that we’d once held a month-long contest across the entire city, asking pros and amateurs to come up with their best Philadelphia cocktail (our very own Manhattan, as it were), and that nothing that came out of that was as good as either of these two drinks, put together on the fly and under pressure, in just 15 minutes.
Granted, I’d been drinking. But I meant it.
In the end, we’d all had a good time. We’d all laughed and put away 10 cocktails and been witness to an amazing display of talent and creativity. But this being Open Stove, we had to have a winner. And in the end, we got one. By one point.
You’ll notice the costume change. Yeah, that was a thing that happened, too. During the Boyz II Men serenade. Right before we announced Team Oyster House as the winners.
Like I said, it was a helluva night. Maybe one of the best we’ve ever had.
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