“When you’re always in the shits, you’re never in the shits.”
That tremendous quotable, dropped by Kenny “Admiral Snackbar” Bush during the fourth installment of COOK’s frenetic and tremendously popular Open Stove series, seems like something that should appear on a limited-edition T-shirt or apron, or at least on a check card at The Industry. But the Bistrot La Minette man (right), who squared off against Henrik “The Swedish Hammer” Ringbom of Brauhaus Schmitz last week, might have also unwittingly stumbled upon an unofficial mantra for Open Stove itself.
Yes, competitions centered around revealed-at-the-last-second secret ingredients are de rigueur for food TV — but that’s TV, where editors, fiending for fabricated drama the same way Cookie Monster fiends for his personal smack, cut and paste and fold and tweak until their sadistic boob-tube whims are met. At Open Stove, there is no phony smoke blown in any direction: It’s real-deal off-the-top cooking, a challenge that places competitors directly “in the shits,” bogged down with 20,000 tasks while the clock ticks in triple time and hungry guests double as potential witnesses to a Chernobyl-caliber kitchen meltdown.
There is also soooooo much alcohol.
The basic concept: COOK brings two sharp, up-and-coming Philly talents in to duke it out via four-course meal for 16 people, two courses of which must feature a top-secret ingredient not revealed to competitors until seconds before a timer begins. Oven Stove IV — it pit Bush, an Ivy-educated American sous chef at Peter Woolsey‘s whoa-so-French La Minette, against Ringbom, a Swede who’s Jeremy Nolen‘s right-hand wurst wrangler at South Street’s Schmitz — was a little different from the first three. This was the first time the COOK staff, joined by Philly Mag and Foobooz culinary capos Jason Sheehan and Arthur Etchells, decided to double the secret ingredients required in rounds two and three. (Stovers are allowed to pre-plan an amuse bouche and a dessert.) In addition to the fresh brook trout provided by delivery service Arganica, for example, COOK threw in yellow-as-a-cartoon-sun Heinz mustard when 15 of the competitors’ 25 cooking minutes in the second round had already elapsed:
While it certainly wasn’t a brand like Löwensenf, which Ringbom might stumble across in the Brauhaus küche, nor a fancy-shmance dijon you might encounter at Bush’s office, both Open Stovers rolled with it. (They kinda had to, of course.) Ringbom quickly mixed it into a corn and Hungarian salami salad he’d topped with taut trout portions seared off in butter and preserved lemon oil. The even-keeled Bush used the contents of his squeeze bottle to emulsify a vinaigrette he worked into his Catalan-style pan de tomate app, where pieces of trout were literally layered with lardo (!). These on-their-feet moves came shortly after Ringbom and Bush presented the crowd with pre-fab amuses of foie liverwurst and chorizo-garnished corn soup, respectively. Slightly unclear on the timeline was the exact moment Bush’s boss Woolsey walked through the doors to talk smack — and pour blatant-bribe Aviation cocktails for the crowd. (Whiskey-loving food editor Sheehan had already begun loosening up voters with generous pours of Bulleit bourbon.)
With Open Stove IV’s entrée course came the reveal of a second Arganica-provided ingredient: elk, sliced thin and jagged like beef for a cheesesteak. Ringbom (top), who finished his dish well before time ran out (“Keep it simple” was the adage he repeated several times throughout the night), served the protein over asparagus and confit potatoes, garnishing with toasted pumpernickel crumbs and a drizzle of salted caramel, the second secret element of the round. Bush’s main (bottom): a stewy pea and carrot combo in a broth of brandy, chicken stock, caramel and prosciutto, topped with elk and a Jerusalem artichoke glazed in the caramel. (We’d all done at least three more shots of Bulleit at this point.)
Brauhaus Schmitz chef Nolen (above, green shirt) eventually turned up to support Ringbom/quietly counteract Woolsey’s blatant pandering, but the presence of the execs didn’t seem to phase their guys whatsoever. They were too focused on dessert:
Around the time sweet-ending plates began dropping in front of stuffed guests, Warren G‘s “Regulate” started playing over the COOK speakers. This was fortuitous, since Open Stovers can’t just be any strictly-savory geeks off the street — they gotta be handy with the steel, if you know what I mean, earn their dessert keep. Bush more than earned his with his beast of a cake, boasting dark chocolate brownie, almond sponge and marshmallow meringue layers coated in Magic Shell (remember Magic Shell?!). Ringbom went a simpler route, with a not-too-sweet strawberry-rhubarb cheesecake that sat in restrained contrast to Bush’s glorious choco-bomb, which also featured crushed pretzels and vanilla cognac ice cream. Sick plate, that.
Ringbom’s “keep it simple” game plan ended up paying off for him in the end: The Hammer, who along with his behind-the-line cohorts was a member of a very, very exclusive club of not-extremely-shmangled people in the room, took home the W for himself, his restaurant and his country according to the audience vote. (Whoever was DJing at the moment played this to commemorate Sweden’s victory.) Bush, while disappointed in the close-call loss, accepted the outcome with extreme grace and probably whiskey. Only one chef can win Open Stove, but both chefs impressed us all with their poise and innovation in the face of adversity and lousy condiments. When you’re always in the shits, you’re never in the shits, right? Must be: Never saw either of these guys sweat.
All Photos: Yoni Nimrod