One person really stood out among the more than 8,000 hospitality and food professionals attending the recent Oklahoma Restaurant Association Convention & Expo. And it wasn’t a gal with must-have makeup that makes you look younger in a zippy three minutes.
Under the cosmetics was renowned executive chef Kurt Fleischfresser of Western Concepts who was dressed as a pirate, not blinking, and just staring at people like dead trout. Earlier that morning, his daughter, Allie, did his makeup, and as long as he didn’t verbalize and just gazed at people gawking at him, he put everyone into a confused state. In casual encounters, the chef probably looked more like a movie star than a chef. Soon enough, people were going crazy with photos of Fleischfresser comparing him to fictional character Jack Sparrow in full regalia.
Fleischfresser was just one of the culinary judges for the expo’s cookoff, along with chef/consultant John Bennett, Robert Black of A Good Egg Dining Group, writer Dave Cathey of The Oklahoman and yours truly. The two-day competition, called the Oswalt Culinary Cook-Off, was just one of the highlights of the recent convention. A total of 12 chefs challenged each other and competed for trophies, medals, trips and more than $5,000 in cash prizes. As judges, we wrote critiques for each competitor and gave high and low scores. There were prizes for first, second and third place.
Here’s how it works every year:
The Culinary Cook-Off pits one chef against another to race against the clock creating dazzling dishes using a mystery basket of ingredients provided by the contest promoters. In addition, battling chefs are allowed to bring in a few ingredients, such as spices, produce or sauces of their own, allowing them to walk the line between tradition and innovation. Chefs competed in various heats — even a Made In Oklahoma one — until the contest was narrowed down and the grand champion was named.
Energetic chef David Henry, who presides over the kitchen of The Tasting Room, 4322 N. Western, partnered with his assistant to give everyone else a run for their money. And he did it, beating out the rest. He honed his own skills under Fleischfresser, but in this particular contest he had just 60 minutes to prepare a meal using items from the mystery basket, including a rack of veal, shredded phyllo dough, blueberries, mango, highly seasoned chorizo, greenlipped mussels, chèvre (French for “goat”) and pods of tamarind.
Henry’s final presentation earned him a $3,000 cash prize, a trophy and gift certificates. He was assisted by Kevin Truong, a culinary arts student at Platt College, who earned a $500 cash prize, a medal and gift certificates. Both won trips to the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago next May.
In addition to how well the chefs utilized their assistant during the competition, participants were marked up or down on complexity, product taste, use of mystery basket items, sanitation practices, unexpected plate presentation and creativity, and above all, they had to deliver those luscious flavors.
The torrid weather outside didn’t slow the action inside as those dozen talented cooks competed in various heats showing off their skills. The food ran the gamut from succulent duck, caramelized pork belly and veal, to ham tofu — all coordinated by chef Eddie Hartwick, while the notable chefs focused on just what to do with these items.
Besides Henry, participating chefs included Jonas Favela, Ranch Steakhouse; Ladan Raissi, Marriott Conference Center and Hotel in Norman; Tyler Whitson, The Local Table in Tulsa; Sarah Leavell, The Canebrake in Wagoner; and Cameron Werry, The Chalkboard in Tulsa.
Also competing were Tony Fialho, Oak Tree Country Club in Edmond; Dion Hughes, Renaissance Hotel; Heather Payne, Deep Fork; Jonathan Groth, the Culinary Institute at Platt College; Chad Willis of Saturn Grill; and Tiffany Poe, Foundations Restaurant at Platt College in Tulsa.
FIRST, SECOND AND THIRD
The competitors at the recent Oklahoma Restaurant Association Convention & Expo participated in various heats until the contest was narrowed down to the last two chefs who came up with a trifecta of appetizer, main dish and dessert. Other chefs leading up to the finals were only required to come up with a main dish.
Winner chef David Henry of The Tasting Room came up against chef Tyler Whitson of Tulsa’s The Local Table. Whitson’s second-place spot earned him $1,500, a trophy and gift certificates. Chef Jonathan Groth of the Culinary Institute at Platt College placed third and took home a cash prize of $750, a trophy and gift certificates.
A creative wine list was furnished and poured by Scott Witherby of Premium Brands, while the master and mistress of ceremonies were Sean and Cathy Cummings of Sean Cummings’ Irish Restaurant & Pub and Vito’s Ristorante. Musical entertainment was provided by Randy Lunsford.
“I am always amazed at the amount of talent we have in Oklahoma,” said Zena Dater, the founder of the Oswalt Culinary Cook-Off. “Year after year, the chefs continue to execute incredible skills and showmanship.” —Carol Smaglinski