Deliciious deliberations: Richert vs. DeBell
On May 16th, I had the honor and pleasure of serving as one of three judges at Nickel City Chef X, joining chef and season one winner Kate Elliott from Juniper, and musician/foodie Nelson Starr from True Blue Buffalo.
Nickel City Chef is a production of Feed Your Soul, which exists to promote the great local farms and foods throughout Western New York. The show's format is similar to Food Network's Iron Chef.
Yesterday's competitors were Nickel City Chef J.J. Richert from Torches vs. Dino DeBell, currently of Cole's, but soon to be the head chef at Blue Monk Bar, the Belgian style gastropub that's currently under construction in the old Merlin's location on Elmwood.
The secret ingredient, conveniently enough, was wine from Arrowhead Spring Vineyard in Niagara County. Given my experience with WNY wineries, it's refreshingly shocking to have local wine that doesn't include a fruit pie ingredient. The red and ice wines were excellent—the chardonnay was marginally less so, but still very drinkable.
Richert's offerings were technically impressive, and delicious. The first course had braised veal cheeks over red wine-infused mashed potatoes on one side, and sea bass over beurre blanc and white wine risotto. Next we had a bison sausage with what can best be described as a sprig of octopus. The flavors were sophisticated and beautifully executed, and the entire thing was topped off with a white wine sorbet with caviar-like droplets of red wine drizzled on top. Richert did not disappoint: flavor, presentation, creativity, or technical execution were all excellent.
I was particularly impressed, however, with Dino DeBell, who is currently working at Cole's (hint: try whatever the special is on a particular night). His first dish involved fried, breaded nuggets of monkfish, which was moist and delicious with a subtle crunch on the outside. This was served with a buttery, mayonnaisey potato salad made with white wine that was absolutely delicious. It was comfort food to the nth degree. The next dish was a sauteed rabbit involtini, with foie gras and ramp stuffing, served over a red wine risotto with morel mushrooms. The rabbit was regrettably chewy and tough, due to an issue with its sourcing, not with its cooking, but the stuffing was great, and the risotto was quite possibly the best I had ever had. It was creamy, savory with a light punch of red wine, and outstanding fresh mushrooms. The dessert was possibly even better - lemon pound cake with mascarpone featuring dark chocolate chunks, over fresh berries. Both red wine and ice wine were used to prepare this dish, if I remember correctly, and it was absolutely perfect.
When I'm judging NCC, part of the issue is that the audience doesn't get to taste what I'm having—although yesterday Adam Goetz from Sample had a wonderful buffet spread out. So, although I mentioned the issue with the rabbit, I didn't feel like I had to necessarily critique the execution of any of the dishes. Doing what they do in 60 minutes is a feat unto itself and I respect it as that. What I try to do in my remarks is explain to the judge what I think worked in the dish, and to let the audience in on what I'm experiencing. The criticism then goes on the sheet in the end.
Although Richert won by 4 points, I really thought that DeBell did an absolutely phenomenal job, and it was almost as if there were two different competitions going on. While Richert won for technical execution and creativity, I thought DeBell's food was simply better—and the judging backed me up on this. On taste, DeBell beat Richert by one point. DeBell's food was all stuff I'd order on any menu (except maybe the rabbit—veal or chicken would have worked fine for that dish, and not been as temperamental).
But to a greater point, last week with Obama's visit, a lot of attention was paid again to wings and hotties and other supposedly typical Buffalo foods. Don't get me wrong—I love wings, but what NCC reinforces is that there are really great chefs here in town doing innovative things deliciously. I've been writing about food for Buffalo Spree since 2004 or so, and I've seen huge changes in the local scene—younger chefs taking more risks and hitting more than they whiff.
If you haven't attended a Nickel City Chef event yet, there are a couple left this season. I get to judge the next one on June 6th between NCC Paul Jenkins from Tempo vs. Jim Guarino from Shango. And there's one more on June 27th. Get your tickets now for a great Sunday afternoon celebrating great Buffalo food, and watching masters practice their craft.