The Foodathlon: Top Chef/Iron Fork Ironman Report

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Chef Matt Bolus Iron Fork Truffle Porn
  • Chef Matt Bolus Iron Fork Truffle Porn
Wednesday was quite the epic day for Nashville foodies. I had circled it on my calendar for weeks, even before I found out that 4/20 would also be the date of the Predators' second home playoff game. (Thanks, Lady Gaga.) Although I was disappointed to have to miss what turned out to be pretty crappy game, I was excited at the prospect of visiting the Top Chef Tour at the Nashville Farmers' Market and judging the Scene's Iron Fork competition that same evening. I even planned to wear my stretchy eatin' pants that day.

Since Wednesday, April 20, was also "Metro Transit to Work Day," I decided to be green and take the Music City Connection to the Farmers Market. Actually, I had to take two buses since I work up by Howard School, but they were both free and on time. The Blue Line to the Market left from Riverfront Park, and I was the only rider. Despite the fact that I was flying solo and had told the driver I was going all the way to Bicentennial Mall, he cheerfully and helpfully called out landmarks along the way.

"Brooooadway and First-Riverfront Park!" — I know. I got on here.
"Brooooadway and Third Avenue — Hatch Show Print!" — Thanks. Headed to the Market, please.
"Brooooadway and Fifth Avenue — Bridgestone Arena!" — Where I won't be at the hockey game tonight.
"Fiiiifth Avenue and Commerce — Dude selling the Contributor."-Check.
"Fiiiifth Avenue and Church Street — Another dude selling the Contributor."-Double check.

This went on every block until we stopped a half block short of the Farmers Market to wait for a time check since he had only picked up a few other riders and was running ahead of schedule. We commuters stared at each other while we wondered whether to get up and walk the extra 50 feet or wait like the good little lambs we were. Just as I made a break for the front of the bus, it lurched forward under the railroad trestle and deposited us at the roundabout.

After receiving my free eco-friendly shopping bag for participating in Transit Week, I walked through the market to where the Top Chef crew had taken over the parking lot. After checking in with the media representatives, I wandered around the Bravo tents which had been set up to promote various products and shows.

Noticing the familiar A La Souvarov of Scene photographer extraordinaire Eric England, I walked over to the aroma testing booth where he and the Scene's resident baking genius/graphic designer Elizabeth Jones were taking the challenge.

They immediately threw the gauntlet down to me, Mr. Food Writer, to see how I would do at the blindfolded sniff test that has proved to be the downfall of many a Top Chef and Hell's Kitchen contestant.

I had unfortunately heard the answer to the final item, but I'm convinced I could have identified truffles. I'm part porcine that way. Of the other two tests, I batted .500. After initially describing the sample as "unappealing?" I recognized it as actually being mustard. I think I deserve at least partial credit for guessing cumin instead of curry, though.

Then it was into the tent to start the show. The Top Chef staffers seated the folks who had preregistered on the Bravo website with quick precision and then filled up the remaining chairs with lucky procrastinators like me. The person who apparently was supposed to be the emcee spoke about three words and handed over the microphone to Nashville's own Top Chef, Arnold Myint.

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No shrinking violet, Arnold was incredibly comfortable in front of the crowd, working the room and answering questions about his Bravo experience and his new gourmet grab-and-go restaurant opening soon at the Farmers' Market. Since we were just the third stop on a 21-city tour, I don't know if every stop on the Top Chef tour will have the advantage of a local host like Arnold, but he sure added to our experience.

Arnold then introduced the two cheftestants, Casey Thompson from Top Chef Season 3 in Miami and more recently Top Chef All Stars and Rich Sweeney from Season 5 in New York City. Casey was every bit as good-looking in person as she was on camera and much less uptight than I expected. I had remembered Rich as being pretty forgettable (is that even possible?), but after listening to him for an hour I realized that it was only because there were so many other stronger personalities during his season. Remember Stefan, Fabio, Leah, Carla and Jamie? Remember Rich? The guy who screwed up Dave Grohl's s'mores? That's OK; he's still a nice guy.

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This year's format differed a little bit from TC's visit to the Belcourt in 2009. Instead of two chefs doing simple cooking demonstrations, they actually competed in a fifteen minute Quickfire Challenge using an ingredient chosen by residents of each tour stop on the Top Chef Facebook page. No surprise, Nashville chose pork.

Each chef was allowed to use one personal ingredient that they brought with them. Apparently knowing her audience well, Casey chose bourbon. Rich made his choice on the plane flight down when he was served a glass of Mr. Pibb. Unaware he was flying into Dr. Pepper country, the poor chef had to work out of a fountain drink cup for the first two demonstrations until he went ahead and switched to the good Doctor for the final two Quickfires of the day.

Both chefs showed a real comfort level with talking while they cooked while keeping an almost unconscious sense of how much time was left on the clock. I'm sure that's a talent born of much practice. While they prepared their dishes, they regaled the audience with stories of how they got eliminated — "Dave Grohl can suck my s'more ..." and life in the contestant house-"gross and crazy." The crowd was amazed to hear that sometimes they spent as much as eight hours in the "stew room" while the judges deliberated. Maybe they were taking that word "deliberate" a little too deliberately.

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In the end, Casey's crispy pork cutlet medallions over a bourbon succotash and a pea puree(!) won a unanimous decision from the judges and the audience choice over Rich's Mr. Pibb-glazed pork over quinoa with a walnut/arugula pesto. Chef Ashley Quick from Flyte was one of the judges, but was very polite, knowing that his time under the microscope would come later that evening at Iron Fork. Personally, while I thought that Casey's pea puree was the best thing on either plate, I thought that Rich's dish was better composed and his pork was cooked better than Casey's dry cutlet. But what do I know?

Well, apparently I'm supposed to know a lot since I found myself at the Country Music Hall of Fame a few hours later preparing to sit in judgment with four of Nashville's favorite chefs and a new young gun freshly deposited into our culinary ecosystem. My fellow judges included two past Golden Fork winners, Deb Paquette of Miel and Jeremy Barlow of Tayst as well as Meg Giuffrida, the chef at Iron Fork's charity of choice, the Martha O'Bryan Center, and the master of the kitchen at the 222 Grill of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Jeremy Foy.

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So needless to say, I was in august company. Luckily, while the group of judges was extremely earnest in their desire to fairly judge the competition, they were also committed to having a good time doing it. Hence the slightly late start to the proceedings which forced 107.5-FM's Woody and Jim to vamp for a while while we retrieved one of the judges from the Cuestion Tequila tasting booth.

Once the panel had been rounded up and handcuffed to our stools, the contestants were introduced: Charles Phillips of 1808 Grille in the Hutton Hotel, the aforementioned Ashley Quick of Flyte, crowd favorite John Stephenson from Fido (an aside — it must have been damned hard to get a cup of coffee on Wednesday night at Fido because all of the employees were hooting and hollering by Chef John's work station), head chef at the de facto Nashville Scene commissary, The Turnip Truck Urban Fare, Laura Wilson, and the new young gun in town Matt Bolus of Watermark. In fact, Chef Bolus admitted he had only been in town 68 hours when the competition started, so maybe it was good that he got to be the final chef to cook and present to the judges.

He reputedly also used that time wisely to do a little Googling of the secret ingredient after it was announced, which was smart since it was fairly obscure — green almonds. These little morsels come from Kern County in California and are only ripe for three weeks of the year, so they are most certainly not a part of the normal vernacular of most Middle Tennessee chefs. Eaten alone, green almonds had a very subtle fruity taste with a slightly bitter finish. Chef Barlow compared them to a rhubarb, and conventional wisdom suggested treating them like an underripe olive. We knew it was going to be quite a feat to create dishes that could feature these delicate flavors without having to serve bland accompaniments. This crew was certainly up to the task.

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Top Chefs Arnold, Casey and Rich entertained the crowd and pressed the flesh while the chefs worked furiously at their stations. The Top Chefs were joined by one of their compatriots, Tiffany Derry, who was in town to cook with Arnold at a tsunami relief event the next night. Chef Derry was exactly as effusive and entertaining as she was on the show, much to the delight of the assembled crowd of 700-plus foodies who came to watch the competition.

Chef Paquette said she was hoping to taste some salt in the meals, but no one expected that the saltiness would come from the sweat off the brows and the tears of our cheftestants. Along with their sous chefs and assistants from local culinary academies, the five competitors absolutely busted their butts for 60 minutes to present clever, creative plates for our judging pleasure. Unlike previous years, since we had so many personalities to share the emcee microphone along with Bites' own Jim Ridley, Carrington Fox and Nicki Wood, we judges were not required to stick around the judges' table for our comments during the competition.

After being instructed to return 10 minutes before the first plate came up, affixing a GPS tracker to our wandering judge, we were set loose to watch the proceedings from up close. I visited with several of my food blogger friends who seemed very excited about the competition taking place before their eyes. The crowds began to whoop and holler for their favorites when the Vita-Mix was fired up or a secret ingredient appeared to be added to the fray. Since I hadn't eaten more than two bites from the Top Chef meal earlier the entire day, I did run upstairs to the Nashville Originals pavilion to sneak a quick meatball with polenta and arrabiata sauce from my friend Chef Dan Maggipinto of Caffe Nonna. A man's gotta eat, y'know. Otherwise I might have gnawed off my arm before judging began, and how would that look? Plus I needed both hands to use the fork and write at the same time.

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The first plate come up from Chef Ashley Quick. I have to say that this was my favorite dish of the evening, and not just because I was still famished. Being first out of the blocks, Chef Ashley only had about 10 minutes to plan his menu while he raided the pantry. In that short time, he came up with the brilliant idea to pickle the green almonds and slice them like olives. I didn't see the process, but I'm assuming he used some sort of hot brine. The almonds sat atop a chow-chow between a perfectly cooked piece of pork loin and a velvety soft-boiled egg. It takes courage to serve a warm-center piece of pork loin, but Quick was up to the task. And what dish isn't better with an egg on it? The contrast of textures was delightful; the malty bacon foam added a nice twang of smoke, and the almond preparation featured the flavor and texture of the fruit better than any other dish of the evening, in my humble opinion. Add to the fact that Chef Ashley made us a judges' bribe plate of some really bad-ass pork rinds and you can see why he got my highest score.

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Batting second was Chef Charles Phillips of 1808. His elegant presentation of a tuna escabeche, tofu with shabu shabu sauce and a white bean and feta cake was the most dramatic platter of the evening. The unconventional choice of using tuna in the escabeche paid off with a very tasty dish, but I couldn't find any evidence of almonds. Pouring the shabu shabu over the tofu out of a hot pot was visually arresting, but I didn't get a lot of flavor out of that portion of the meal. The bean cake was slathered in a mustard sauce which unfortunately totally overpowered the cake and most of the rest of the whole plate. Still, it was a lovely plate of food which I'm confident could have been tweaked to emphasize some flavors and mute others to make a real winner.

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Next up was the eventual champion, Chef Laura Wilson of The Turnip Truck Urban Fare. First off, I have to admit that I ate at The Turnip Truck twice during the week before the competition. I love the creative healthy options that Chef Laura puts out on the steam tables at the Truck, and it is the best affordable healthy option for carry-out anywhere near where I work. That being said, Wilson did not get one of my highest scores. Her dish was a house-made pasta topped with mushrooms and served with an almond pesto and spicy chopped tomato presentation that was almost like a bruschetta topping.

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At least it was supposed to have all that. In the heat of the battle, my judge's plate arrived with just a few pieces of pasta, a smear of pesto and some arugula. I did get the delightful gougère filled with almond paste that was one of the highlights of the evening. It bugged me to have to act like a Simon Cowell, but I could only judge what actually made it to my plate, so I reluctantly wrote down a lower score and then begged Chef Laura for some of the missing elements for my plate. I tried to keep it lowkey, because I didn't want to embarrass her. What I really wanted was the chance to eat the fully composed dish. I did pass some of the tomatoes down the line of judges after they had finished their scoring and we all recognized it as being one of the tastiest elements of any of the dishes we tried all night.

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The crowd's din started to build to a roar as Chef John Stephenson of Fido approached the judges' table. He presented an European/Mediterranean take on the green almond with his tuna carpaccio topped with arugula and a delicious little hazelnut/almond tart.

The arugula was topped with a tangy lemon/sultana sauce that Chef Stephenson referred to as their "LSD sauce," but with addition of almonds. The LSD was indeed hallucinatorily good, but the mouth feel of the tuna slices was a little mealy and the crunch of a heavy handful of finishing salt did not add to the experience. I know that Chef John didn't bring the tuna himself, but I had to mark down a point for choosing to use it. Or perhaps the citrus of the LSD broke down the texture a little bit, but I was still very pleased with the flavor profile.

The tart was a little unwieldy to get my mouth around, but it was one of my favorite bites of the evening. I did manage to slip a taste to a friend of mine who is a huge Fido fan and she concurred.

Finally came the chef who everyone was keeping at least one eye on all night, Chef Matt Bolus of Watermark. Brand-new in town after a period working as the lead butcher and fishmonger at Mike Lata's FIG Restaurant in Charleston, S.C., Chef Bolus has the pedigree that everyone was wary of. Trained at Le Cordon Bleu, Chef Bolus has also worked with Sean Brock of McCrady’s, Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern and John Fleer of Blackberry Farms in East Tennessee. The fact that he served as a sous chef on an episode of Iron Chef last year meant that he was already experienced in the heat of the competitive kitchen. Plus I just think that diners and fellow chefs alike were all just curious to see what the new kid in school was like.

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Chef Bolus was calm and personable when I talked to him before the event, but when the clock started he was all business. His dish of a fried chicken breast served over a kalamata-like almond mix with parsley and raisins was really appealing to the eye. And he played the black truffle card. I smelled the strong earthy aroma of the truffles while he was still 10 feet away from placing the dish in front of me. After finishing that dish, I believe I can safely say that I more than doubled my lifetime consumption of those precious little fungi last that night.

So extra points for the truffles, for sure. But in actuality, they didn't really add too much to the overall composition of the plate. The chicken was delicately fried and perfectly moist. The bite of the pickled almonds contrasted nicely with the sweet raisins. If I had any complaints about the flavors of the dish, it would just be a slight deficit of salt. I do wish the green almonds had been featured a little more discretely instead of being chopped so small. Chef Bolus also missed out on the opportunity to use almonds in his chicken breading, but I'm sure that was a thoughtful decision on his part. On the whole, he received high marks from me and I look forward to seeing what he does at Watermark.

In the end Chef Wilson triumphed by a single point after tallying the five judges' ballots three times. That means that she really must have blown the other judges out of the water since I could only judge half a plate. I'm happy that they got the full meal and I'm happy that Laura won. Now I don't have to hide my face the next time I go into the Turnip Truck. Like tomorrow.

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