Capital Food Fight [Photos: R. Lopez]
It may have taken place in D.C., but the evening belonged to Baltimore. Chefs, foodies and lovers of cutthroat competition gathered last night for the 10th annual Capital Food Fight to benefit D.C. Central Kitchen. And the culinary champion, after two hard-fought battles, was Woodberry Kitchen's Spike Gjerde. The newest addition to the prestigious event was a cake battle hosted by a quintessential member of Charm City's eating scene, Duff Goldman, executive chef of Charm City Cakes and host of the Food Network show "Ace of Cakes."
Altogether, staff from 75 Washington restaurants presented dishes to attendees at booths throughout the Ronald Reagan International Trade Centetr. Auctions and duels took place on the main stage judged by heavy hitters in the food world such as Tom Colicchio and Todd English. Hosted by the irreplaceable and never-quiet José Andrés and the "Hoty hoo"-yelling member of "The Chew" Carla Hall, it was the biggest Food Fight to date. Read on for Hangover Observations from an occasion based around D.C. smack talk, snakehead and dancing feet and flavors.
1. Sucking up to Bourdain and Hall: During the first battle -— with a secret ingredient of snakehead — Andrés referenced the absence of Anthony Bourdain on the stage this year and called Hall the best co-host ever. "But don't tell Tony that," he joked. "I still want to be on his show."
2. By the numbers: A decade of Food Fights sure racks up some impressive stats. In that time, the event has seen 11,488 guests; 210 participating restaurants; 50 battling chefs and $3.5 million raised for D.C. Central Kitchen.
3. Almost a reporter: If not the pastry chef at Ris (and Pastry Chef of the Year in 2012 at the RAMMY's, by the way) what would Beverly Bates be? Goldman, in making the rounds during the cake competition, posed the probing query. Turns out Bates was a self-described journalism school dropout. "So did you want to be the bureau chief of Mexico or something?" Goldman asked. Woodward and Bernstein were her inspiration. Then Bates realized something. "I needed to make rent, and journalists don't get paid well." Preach, Bev.
4. He was never without words, but Andrés' accent often made those words not easily decipherable. The chef acknowledged this and told the crowd he's the only person that could possibly get more Spanish after being in the United States for so long.
5. Baltimore Bashing: Speaking of geography, Washingtonians' perception of its neighbor city, Baltimore, was something Goldman picked on during his brief appearance on the main stage (most of the time he could be found with the bakers). When he struggled with reading off results, he assured the audience he could, in fact, read. "People in Washington D.C. think people in Baltimore don't know how to read. There's a weird thing about D.C. people. You think you need a passport to go to Baltimore." Then he followed it up with an open-ended invite to his home city and bragged about just how cool it is.
5. Oops: Even pastry chefs have culinary blunders. Joel Singer, representing Whole Foods in the cake decorating contest, admitted that once while delivering a five- layer cake in the heat he had to stop short and ended up ruining one of the layers. "So, did they get a four-layer cake instead?" Goldman asked. Singer confirmed he had to improvise and yes, it turned into a four-layer cake.
6. There were no "Top Chef" spoilers conveyed despite the hosts' best efforts. The latest season, filmed in New Orleans, is airing now and a handful of episodes deep. Colicchio, though, wouldn't spill any secrets on results. "I'd end up in jail," he said. "I'm sure I could find work cooking in jail." But he worried that in the slammer the calibre of ingredients would be lower. "And I wouldn't get to cook for you," he said of Andrés. The Spaniard riffed back that Colicchio isn't budging because he doesn't know who won. "They probably make you leave the room."
7. In round two of the main stage battle, Hall wanted to know about the flavors in 1789 chef Anthony Lombardo's pans. "They're dancing between sweet and savory," Lombardo said. Hall's response: to tell him to dance with it. "You should see me dance," the 1789 chef shot back. And then Hall promised that before the night was over they'd shake it.
8. Hidden talents: Hall's ability as an auctioneer was a frequent topic of conversation amongst the guests. Her fast-talking, rhythm and hyper energy around the stage fit well with driving up the bids on prizes like tickets to the Aspen Food and Wine Festival. "It could be her second career," one attendee was overhead saying.
9. Legends of Todd English: Before the final battle, pitting Toki Underground chef Erik Bruner-Yang against eventual champion Spike Gjerde, the judges took the spotlight. Colicchio and Rick Bayless squared off against English and Art Smith. Jokes flew about how little time the big name chefs spend in the kitchen these days. "Todd English is having a hard time taking his jacket off because he never puts on a chef jacket," Andres poked fun. Then, a few minutes later he asked English, "What did you feel, cracking an egg for the first time in 10 years?" It's "like riding a bike," English said.
10. Groaner: English, in explaining his gnocchi dish, reminded everyone, "It takes a tender guy to make a tender gnocchi."
11. The main judge deciding between English-Smith versus Colicchio-Bayless came from the crowd. For $5,000 anyone could pay to be the decider. After several minutes trying to coax a benefactor, a woman in a purple dress emerged out of nowhere asking about paying with a debit card. When it was allowed, she let her friend take her spot on stage. In the woman's opinion, there was no contest. Colicchio and Bayless clinched the victory. "I don't know what Rick Bayless brought with him," she said, alluding to the bags of chilies that he used in his sauce. But it put the team over the top. When Colicchio explained that sauce was a ragout, Bayless mocked the word. "I don't know what 'ragout' is. That's a jarred tomato sauce, isn't it?"
12. A tribute: Famed Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, who recently died, was briefly memorialized. Instead of taking a moment of silence, the hosts said they felt his presence watching over them. "Heaven is eating better now," Andrés said.
13. The voice of God continually was heard. That's what Andrés called the booming voice of master of ceremonies Mark Kessler, who's also the stadium voice of the D.C.'s controversially named NFL team.
12. Do the mash: A quick cooking tip came up early on in the evening in response to the presence of several purees. When in doubt, just mash the hell out of it. At least that's what Hall and Andrés suggest.
13. Cake decorations in the "High Stakes Cake" contest represented a wide range of styles. Bates conjured up a cake within a cake coming out of a cake box. "Very existential," the hosts coined it. Graham made a cake with a boxing ring and several figures literally fighting including Goldman. The winner, though, was Padua Player, aka Suga Chef, whose cake was decorated to look like a bowl of gumbo atop a salad.
14. Gjerde, in explaining his dish that included a mole sauce, gave the longest description of the night. The dish won over the judges, however, and earned him the victory.
15. Some chefs ended up at Spike Mendelsohn's Bearnaise after the event, where the chef was dishing out steak tartare on the house, and gin and tonics in honor of Andrés. An Eater tipster spotted D.C. councilmember and mayoral candidate Tommy Wells and Art Smith at the restaurant as well.
Editor's Note: The original story misstated the job title of Tommy Wells.
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