Culinary Fight Club Steak Challenge: unique talent competes again – for the common good

Chef Stephen Sandoval celebrating his win in the Chicago Culinary Fight Club Steak Challenge

“Do you want to try it?,” Chef Stephen Sandoval asked me, spoon on hand, ready to share the last remaining bits of Oaxacan mushroom&pasilla purée. I had been pestering him about his dish, but the music was loud, the smoke cloud-thick, and communication was difficult, so what better way to answer my questions than to let me try his food one more time? The proof is in the food, as they say – and the steak Chef Sandoval had prepared in the Culinary Fight Club competition was a thing of beauty: melt-in-your-mouth, aromatic New York strip steak sitting pretty on a velvety blanket of spicy purée, with cherry-churri and a crispy piece of Patagonian-style potatoes on top. Brimming with grilled cherries poached in balsamic, the smokiness of the cherry-churri instantly reminded me of the dried prunes I used to enjoy as a child. Same depth of sticky flavor, same unmistakable honest and true aroma, unadulterated and vibrant, like a child in the countryside. With that cherry-churri, Chef Sandoval had to be crowned the winner – and he was 🙂

This was the second time I attended a Culinary Fight Club competition (here’s a review of my first experience), and I am loving these more and more. In addition to raising money for the less fortunate and to promoting Fight2Feed, a nonprofit organization that delivers service and support to hungry people across Chicagoland, Culinary Fight Club is also an excellent platform for showcasing talent – and the Steak Challenge held in Chicago this week was a case in point. Joining Chef Sandoval (of Leña Brava) at the start of the competition were Chefs Joelle Brown (of Nola Nights Southern Aromas), Geo Phelps (of Chili Rocks) and Corey Rice (a former MasterChef contestant). With such a diverse lineup, we were in for a treat!

As usual, the event began with the contestants being briefed on the rules: they had 45 seconds to get ingredients from the pantry and 60 minutes to create one dish that represented their take on steak. After 60 minutes, the judges and the public would taste the food and decide the winner.

Chefs used their hands – and elbows! – to secure their favorite ingredients from the pantry. This is always such a fun part to watch!

Wood-fired open flame cooking is one of the hallmarks of Leña Brava, and Chef Sandoval was determined to draw on the experience gained at this restaurant under the wing of Chef Rick Bayless to secure the win. He started off by building a fire on top of the gas grill provided by the organizers.

This move paid off: the steak stood out among its competitors and turned out tender and unbelievably flavorful.

Overall, I was impressed with Chef Sandoval’s thorough knowledge, concern with authenticity in cooking, and last but not least dedication. A humble and genuine chef – and a consummate professional for sure!

Watching Chef Joelle Brown compete for the Culinary Fight Club prize was also a lot of fun. A Louisiana native, Chef Brown is renowned for her passion for cooking and skillful rendition of various Southern food classics, and is also a familiar name on the competition circuit. In this round of the Culinary Fight Club she offered the judges and the public her own version of surf & turf.

Here you have Chef Brown prepping the shrimp for the Cajun cream sauce which was about to go on top of her steak:

Once the cooking was over, it was time for the contestants to meet the judges: iconic Breakfast Queen Ina Pinkney (who now writes for Chicago Tribune), Chef Paul Caravelli (of Grille No 43) and Chef Massimo Gaffo (of Mama’s Boy).

One by one, the chefs presented their dishes and in some cases defended their choice of ingredients before the judges. Why this cut of meat? What’s in the marinade? How did you make the sauce? These were just some of the questions asked at this stage.

Chef Sandoval’s creation made quite an impact on the judges, who showed their appreciation for the dish on the whole and the innovative cherry-churri in particular.

In the end, the dish won both the judges’ vote and the popular vote. What a night!

On further reflection, it is hard for me to single out one thing that stood out for me at this round of the Culinary Fight Club. I loved the food, admired the chefs, and fully immersed myself in the fulfilling cause behind the competition. I will look forward to the Culinary Fight Club every month from now on because it’s an amazing concept well worth supporting. Like I said in my first review, it’s a nail-biting show which brings out the best of both worlds, so to speak. It celebrates individual culinary talent and also fights hard for a greater charitable purpose: community development – the you and I, the we and us 🙂

Disclaimer: I was offered a complimentary tasting to facilitate this review. All opinions expressed here are my own.


  • Marina

    July 22, 2017

    To me, this Culinary Fight Club was a first-time experience. I was mesmerized by the confident, calm way the Argentinian Chef was moving about preparing his steak, being totally “in the zone” despite a crowd of onlookers! Humble indeed. The steak was scrumptious, and even those who are not huge meat-eaters (like myself) would appreciate it, I’m sure. I’ll be looking forward to the next invite! 😉

    • MickyN

      July 22, 2017

      Your comments are spot on, Marina 🙂

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