Chicago Public Radio's Chef Battle 2009

September 28 2009 - 9:05 PM

Last night, Chicago Public Radio hosted the first event of their new event series, the Chicago Chef Battle. Though most of the other events focus on literature, film or music, this one immediately caught my attention, since it not only required a low-level of cerebral commitment, there was also food involved. In an Iron Chef-esque showdown, three Chicago chefs would be preparing food using a key ingredient. Goose Island Brewery was listed as a main sponsor of the event, so it didn't take too much guesswork to figure out that the special ingredient was beer.

Studio 312's Jimmy Carrane served as the evening's master of ceremonies and he turned in a fantastic performance, livening up the audience and stoking the fires of competition. Or at least, he tried admirably. As he introduced Chef Jared Van Camp of Old Town Social, he slyly remarked, "You know, there's talk that Old Town Social is just a bar. What do you have to say to that?" Van Camp responded with a grin, "We're just a bar." Appropriately enough, Van Camp was dishing out an haute bar food item, a sausage made with Goose Island Matilda over cornmeal-bacon waffles with maple syrup.

Next, Chef Jill Barron of Mana Food Bar was presented. She explained that she would be serving a vegetarian chili made with chickpeas, black beans, corn, guajillo chili and Matilda, topped with an aged 10-year cheddar and scallions, with a wedge of cornbread on the side. When asked why she thought she was the strongest contender in the competition, she replied, "We made vegetarian food at a beer contest, you know it has to be good!"

The last chef presented was Ben Sheagren of Hopleaf, one of Chicago's premier gastropubs. He opted to play the exotic meat card of the night, with a rabbit stew of rapini, fennel, garlic sausage, roasted garlic, white beans and potatoes, in a Matilda-based broth. Going into the competition, I would have put my money on Sheagren to win, and Carrane suggested as much himself. "Some say you have an advantage because you have worked with beer a lot in your cooking. How do you respond to that?" he asked. Sheagren paused for a moment and said simply, "They might be right." The audience roared.

Since the line seemed the shortest, I started off with the Hopleaf rabbit stew, served with a large crostini slice. The stew was a hearty mix of beans, shredded rabbit and bitter rapini, satisfying on a chilly fall evening, but we all felt that it was missing that wow-factor. I then snagged a slice of sausage and waffle. Mmm, meaty sausage with a light, buttery waffle and syrup; Van Camp certainly knew how to assemble a crowd pleaser. Finally, we trekked to the Mana Food Bar station for chili. "I'm keeping an open mind, but I don't think a vegetarian item can possibly top sausage and waffles for me," said a more carnivorously-minded friend. We got our colorful chili bowls, festooned with cheese and scallions, and began to dig in. Spicy bean chili, soaked up by sweet cornbread, with a sharp cheddar on top. One by one, we looked up in astonishment. "This is…so…good," mumbled the carnivore. "I changed my mind, this is the dish I'm voting for."


Meanwhile, Goose Island was liberally doling out beer samples to help us wash down the food. Their iconic 312 and competition star Matilda were on tap, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that they also had bottled Pere Jacques and Sofie available. Sofie is a light Belgian style farmhouse ale with citrus flavors. In contrast, the Pere Jacques is a wonderfully rich, complex abbey-style ale, and Matilda is a less intense though still memorable spicy pale ale.

The winner was to be determined solely through audience voting. "Don't forget to vote," admonished Carrane. "Unlike every other Chicago election you've voted in, this time, your vote counts!" The crowd rushed to put their pins on the public voting boards. It was soon evident that this would not be a very close race. When the results had been tallied, it was announced that Sheagren had come in third place, Van Camp had come in second, and Barron had won the contest by a landslide. For her efforts, she won some signed books, a private tour of Goose Island, and some well-deserved publicity and recognition. I, for one, will certainly be adding Mana to my list of restaurants to check out.

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