Chef Battle Midwest Regionals: I ate, I judged, I had a fabulous time!

I don’t know about you, but I love cooking competitions! There is something truly addictive in watching the adrenaline, the sweat, the trembling – and sometimes the desperation – of talented chefs working under pressure. Be it the ingredients that are hard to work with, be it the technology that fails, be it last-second misfortunes which render the final dish inedible – it’s all that drama that keeps me glued to the TV screen, waiting for the chefs’ next move. As a Chicago-based foodie, I’ve also had my fair share of live cooking competitions, which I attended and then described in detail on this blog.

The most recent competition I was invited to was Chef Battle Midwest Regionals. I also agreed to be a judge for the preliminary stage of this event. Spending Sunday downtown eating food made by talented local chefs and grading them for their efforts? Yes, please 🙂

Chef Battle is a national cooking competition produced by Social Power Hour. Chefs from Illinois, Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, Missouri and Michigan who had won their local qualifying event faced off at the regional competition recently hosted by STK Chicago.
The chefs competed early in the day and were judged by food critics (myself included), with the top three advancing to the public event, which started in the afternoon. As with most similar cooking competitions, the chefs had to use ingredients from mystery baskets during both stages of the event.

This lobster mac & cheese with asparagus and buttery crostini was one of my two absolute favorite dishes produced in the preliminary round. The addition of lemon provided balance and freshness, while the tender asparagus was cooked perfectly. This was an artfully composed, solid mac & cheese – chock-full of lobster, as you can see!

I also enjoyed this pork tenderloin with crispy Brussels sprouts, tossed in a spice cream and served with a carrot & roasted orange pepper purée. The pork was super tender and gently flavored, and worked well in combination with the creative textures of the crispy veggies. The purée provided balance and delicious simplicity, and made the dish complete.

As with other live cooking competitions, not all of the dishes were successful. Some, for example, were overloaded with different proteins and/or veggies, and lacked cohesiveness or clarity:

Others fell flat in terms of creativity or presentation:

These aside, on the whole, I was impressed with the quality of the dishes, the elaborate thought processes behind them, and last but not least the technique displayed by the chefs.

Once the preliminary judging was over, the organizers announced there was a tie, which meant that the four highest scoring chefs (not three, as initially announced) were to advance to the final round. These chefs were: Teren Green, Chef Teren Green; Justin Scardina, Driftless Food & Catering;  Cameron Settle, Moonrise Hotel; Aaron White, Urban Cellar.

The four chefs had one hour to create their best dish, and were allowed one sous chef to help with their game plan.

Chef Teren Green impressed the public with his skilled cooking…

…which involved handling a 15lb lobster for a repeat of his mac & cheese!

Once the cooking was over, it was time for the chefs and their dishes to meet the judges.

Here’s chef Cameron Settle’s final dish of spinach & herb marinated sirloin tip with mushroom bourbon cream sauce, roasted peppers and a drizzle of spinach & herb oil:

Here’s chef Aaron White’s chicken coated in Ohana Volcanic Legend spice mix, with charred Brussels sprouts, tomato & roasted pepper sauce and a root vegetable hash:

Here’s chef Justin Scardina’s herb marinated chicken breast over a cauliflower & potato purée, with thyme-scented asparagus and a mushroom cream sauce:

After tasting the final dishes and counting the judges’ and the public’s votes, chef Justin Scardina was declared the winner. His prize: $500 towards travel costs to compete in the All-American Chef Battle in early 2020!

Chef Scardina’s dish was my favorite dish in the final round, and I was pleased to see him win. He kept it simple with authentic flavors and a straightforward composition, which demonstrated perfect technique and a thorough understanding of flavor development. I was particularly impressed with chef Scardina’s handling of the chicken, which was succulent and thus perfectly cooked. Lastly, I appreciated chef Scardina’s attention to detail, which I noticed firsthand on several occasions throughout the competition.

I thoroughly enjoyed attending Chef Battle, judging the preliminary stage of the competition, and tasting the final dishes. I often marvel at the artistry displayed by chefs while working under pressure, and this event certainly did not disappoint in terms of artistry and skills. Seeing so many chefs at work, watching their every move and witnessing the drama and the creativity unfold, I gained some new perspectives on food, and became a better cook as a result. I came, I ate, I judged, I had a fabulous time at Chef Battle. Long may this competition continue!


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