I’ve volunteered to judge dozens of cooking competitions since I began writing about food professionally years ago. Burgers, organic pastries, vegan barbecue, Buffalo wings, shucked oysters, gingerbread-flavored cocktails, cupcakes, chili in volumes that’d fill a regulation Olympic-size pool — I’ve sucked it all down, scribbling notes and numeric scores on sauce-stained paper while grinning like a Hunger Games champ with two hollow legs. My willingness to participate in these cookoffs has led to some friends accusing me of being a whore for dream-smushing edible valuation, but really I just like to eat a whole lot.
With my enthusiasm, of course, has come a predictable drawback: awful food. A decent amount of the stuff I’ve tasted for competitions has been solid to excellent. A majority of it is just alright, just OK. But then there are the brain-searingly memorable duds. Chewy scallops, raw-but-not-in-a-good-way lamb, rancid parm-topped pasta, mixed drinks so unnecessarily strong they caused parts of my face to melt like the Nazis in the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Gotta take the bad with the good, yeah?
Not so with Philly’s inaugural Hop Chef.
Sponsored by Cooperstown-based Brewery Ommegang and Saveur, the beer-based competition, part of the “Great Beer Deserves Great Food” campaign, brought together the strongest and most professionally diverse field of contestants I’ve evaluated. The cooking was incredible, the competition formidable and intense. From my perspective, it lived up to the weeks of web hype and press that preceded it, and more notably, it further cemented Philly’s current-day chef set as legit badass.
Hop Chef went down July 10 at World Café Live, but local chatter about the event itself, which has also gone down in Albany and D.C., began a month earlier, when four of the competition’s six contestants — Joe Cicala (Le Virtu), Nick Elmi (Rittenhouse Tavern), George Sabatino (Stateside) and Scott Schroeder (SPTR/American Sardine Bar) — road-tripped it to Ommegang HQ in New York State for an R&D excursion chronicled by both Philadelphia Weekly and the chefs’ own Twitter feeds. Each entrant (Jason Cichonski of Ela and Jon Cichon of Lacroix being the last two) was tasked with preparing two dishes matched with a beer from the Belgian-style brewery, based on principles like “Incorporation,” “Simple Pairing” and “Mimicking.” The concept? Simple. The cooking? Ambitious. (Worth noting: All of these chefs have taught at COOK.)
I was excited to represent Saveur, to which I am an occasional freelance contributor, on a judging panel that also featured Art Etchells of Foobooz, Mat Falco of Philly Beer Scene, chef Jennifer Carroll and Di Bruno’s owner Emilio Mignucci. As the excited 200-plus guests milled about WCL, snagging pours of Rare Vos while descending upon the chefs’ tables in “European-style” (read: famished and quasi-lawless) queues, we laid in wait at our tableclothed perch, trying really hard not to drink too much before the “work” part of the evening began.
Cicala, known for his pastas and refined-yet-homey Abruzzese fare at Le Virtu, started off the night, presenting delicate, citrus-kissed raviolini stuffed with Witte-braised testina (head cheese) and topped with toasted pistachio and pecorino (above, right); and a flourless chocolate cake filled with coconut pastry cream (above, left), both made with Ommegang’s Three Philosophers, the nearly-10-percent-ABV Belgian quad whose darkly fruity personality made it an ace pairing for sweet preparations.
Cichonski’s table (above, top) presented next, the chef armed with the edge that’s made his Queen Village joint Ela a must-stop for curious epicureans. Manipulating scallops into a shapeless puree and then reforming them to resemble, well, scallops, Cichonski injected each Hennepin-paired portion with liquefied corn, resting them on a “very umami” bed of pickled maize with chanterelles, dashi and dehydrated mustard chips. His Rare Vos-paired dessert, a cheddar cake augmented with candied rye foccacia and Manjari chocolate, piqued the particular interest of queso king Mignucci. (The infamous towel pic from his Daily News “Sexy Singles” spread, ruthlessly spread by his competitors via Twitter, did not come up at judges’ table).
The Toweled One was followed by his old Lacroix coworker Cichon (above, left), whose savory dish (above, right) featured a sharp round of watermelon topped with blue crab (he’s a Maryland native), pickled watermelon rind, fried shallots cilantro and jalapeno, paired with BPA. For dessert, Cichon packed his own Pacojet, spinning boozy ice cream to order along with his light, flavorful Three Philosophers-spiked beignets. In fact, the only liquid in used in the latter dish was beer — a tricky proposition Cichon said took him four tries to get exactly right.
Sabatino (above and below left), who counts East Passyunk’s successful Stateside as his first head chef gig, visited the judges next, breaking down his smoked-then-Abbey Dubbel-braised beef short rib lettuce wraps, studded up with brined/boiled beer peanuts, pickled watermelon rind and a watermelon barbecue sauce. Stateside pastry chef Robert Toland stepped in to break down their dessert offering, a crazy-elaborate setup that made best use of the “mimicking” principle — they pulled out and deconstructed the flavors of Three Philosophers, spheroid-ing cherries, whipping up marcona almond nougatine, making pannacotta from cherry pits and even sprinkling the whole deal with espresso Pop Rocks to ape the beer’s carbonation.
Us judges, still (surprisingly?) clear-eyed despite downing quite a few Ommegang treats four chefs in, were glad to have our wits about us for Elmi’s presentation, which was so ambitious he actually presented a Rittenhouse Tavern-branded written breakdown for reference (above, right). First was his Witte-inspired hamachi, which saw him combining fatty tuna with generous uni portions and purees to match flavors in the summery wheat beer, including yuzu, cucumber, green apple and wheatgrass. He then topped the dish with beer-brined cod bladder (!) he’d converted into a powder. Elmi, no stranger to bladders, pointed out that the fish organ, called isinglass in the brewing world, is used to clarify beers, much to the chagrin of vegans with drinking problems. For Elmi’s dessert: a Three Philosophers-paired bing cherry tart, into which he snuck sweet cured lardo (!).
Consummate smack-talker Schroeder served last, maximizing the amount of time he had to unleash psychological warfare on his rivals. He led with bluefin tuna crudo dressed with additions like crispy pancetta, micro basil, orange-marinated basil seeds, pickled chilies and frozen melon soaked in Ommegang BPA, the beer that also served as the dish’s pairing. Next he presented a very-him braised short rib open-faced on homemade potato bread, topped with pickled mustard seeds, fresh-grated horseradish and a ladle of foie gras mushroom gravy.
Voting was rough and tough — I for some reason waited until the very end to score each dish on a 25-point scale, an agonizing task — but in the end, Sabatino took top honors, edging runner-up Elmi by just 1.5 points to claim the Philly Hop Chef belt. Sabatino, who was promptly rewarded with an Ommegang shower for his efforts, will travel back to Cooperstown in early August to compete against other Hop Chef winners at the annual Belgium Comes to Cooperstown event. Schroeder, meanwhile, seemed to relish his self-appointed role as “People’s Champ,” earning the audience favorite award for his dishes. As I said before, this was the most legit food event I’ve ever had the honor of judging — each and every chef brought it, no one half-assed anything, and I truly look forward to seeing how the precedent this level of cooking has set for subsequent Philly food competitions manifests itself in the future.
Here’s a quick video from the judges’ table of the big announcement. Special thanks to COOK photographer Yoni Nimrod for all the excellent shots.