For some people, watching as a meal is prepared, cooked and plated and then being denied the chance to partake is considered a particularly cruel form of torture. Those were not the people who crowded into the Cellar at Macy's Union Square on a Wednesday night to watch the chefs of their favorite local restaurants compete in a head-to-head battle.
The competition is structured along the same lines as Food Network's Iron Chef -- competitors are given 45 minutes to prepare the best dishes possible with a secret ingredient revealed just before the start of competition. This week's match pitted Top Chef alumna Jen Biesty of Scala's Bistro against Esquire Chef of Year Dominque Crenn of Luce, in a Cephalopod showdown (squid and octopus to the lay-eater).
Macy's version of the Kitchen Stadium consisted of rows of folding chairs set up between the stacks of stockpots and bread-makers, facing a test kitchen. Tickets to the event, which included cocktails and appetizers from both chefs' restaurants, sold-out and standing-room-only spectators were squished into the aisles.
Marisa Churchill, also a former Top Chef contestant, narrated the action, and four screens trained on every angel of the kitchen ensured that no detail escaped the captive audience's hungry eyes. While they cooked, the chefs answered audience questions (are you going to use the squid ink in the risotto? where do you get your hair done?), gossiped about Top Chef contestants (Biesty thought Hosea didn't deserve to win) and shared tips (to keep fish from drying out: start with a hot pan and gradually lower the heat while cooking). All this while prepping the three dishes they would present to the judges. Tension ran high at points; it looked as though Crenn might have crashed and burned when she heaved a pile of bad ingredients into the trash in the middle of the competition, and again as she muttered French curse words under her breath as the final 45 seconds were counted down.
Biesty, who presented a squid crostini with chili mint sauce, fish and chips with pea tendril ginger sauce and risotto with grilled and poached baby octopus, was seen as a favorite going into the competition. When asked if she thought being a contestant on Top Chef would give her an advantage, she scoffed, "definitely a little bit of training for Macy's Battle of the Chefs..." But apparently it was not enough training, because in the end the three judges, all local food critics, preferred Crenn's three dishes: calamari "ceviche" with uni panna cotta and crispy shallots, calamari citrus salad with pickled farro "popcorn" and potato fondant, and fried calamari salsify velouté with pancetta gastrique.
We didn't get to eat the food, but taste is just one part of the experience (OK, a really big part); there is so much else to appreciate -- the chemistry of a carefully crafted flavor profile, the dexterity of skilled knife-work, the artistry of plating...and the early end, which left just enough time to grab a bite before the food court closed.