Competing chefs sweat out Crabby Chef cookoff
on October 14, 2008
by MAGGIE FAZELI FARD
Oct. 12–If crab legs and butter sauce are a match made in heaven, consider the annual Crabby Chef competition the ultimate home-wrecker.
Hosted every year by Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto in Berkeley, the Iron Chef-style fundraiser has paired King Crab’s sweet, succulent legs with surprising mistresses like papaya and pumpkin for the past eight years.
This year was no different, as Spenger’s drew a large crowd today, eager to ring in the start of California’s crab season while raising money for a good cause–Cal Recreational Sports’ Scholarship Program.
But the announcement of the “secret ingredient” before this afternoon’s cook-off left more than the butter shaking.
“Artichokes have nothing to do with anything,” exclaimed one competitor who goes only by “Chef Matt,” a chef at Oakland’s St. Paul’s Towers senior community.
“I knew I was going to do curry,” he said. “The artichoke completely throws it off.”
Other competing chefs, hailing from various Bay Area restaurants, catering companies and even UC Berkeley’s Cal Cooking Club, were also startled by today’s choice. With their thorns and furry chokes–and the fact that they are not yet in season, as several chefs pointed out–artichokes can be tricky.
But those who persevered discovered that artichokes can also be sweet, mellow and delicate, not quite unlike hard-shelled star ingredient itself.
The chefs snapped, pulled, peeled and chopped. They fried, steamed, caramelized and grizzled. And finally, in return, the enfants terribles of the culinary world relented.
Within 20 minutes–a time limit characterized by Spenger’s Chef Devon Boisen as “the worst thing you could do to a chef”–spectators looked up from their crab cakes and beers to see a parade of crab and artichoke dishes making their way up and down a sun-soaked Fourth Street parking lot.
Four judges taste-tested deep-fried lobster and crab wraps, crab and artichoke chowders, artichoke blinis and the ubiquitous crab cake, a mainstay at the annual event.
Some chefs shied away from the guest star, relegating the artichokes to playing second fiddle in salsas and garnishes. Chef Matt didn’t stray from his plan, incorporating the artichoke as a cup for his crab curry. The Cal Cooking Club chefs got the biggest cheers from the crowd not for their use of the secret ingredient, but for frying up their tortillas in rendered bacon fat.
But this year’s winner, Terry Paulding of Paulding and Company in Emeryville, wowed judges by making the unlikely coupling seem effortless: she served a crab, artichoke and squash soup with crab, artichokes, jicama and sweet corn in a sumac and green chile mixture.
“It’s all about thinking about what makes food taste good,” said Paulding after her hard-fought win–she didn’t have a working burner for the first five minutes of the competition.
“It’s about thinking about what ingredients you’ve got and the best use of them,” she continued, setting down the heavy glass “Crabby” award that had nearly knocked her over. “We planned a chile mixture that would go with everything. I think I would have been thrown off if bacon were the secret ingredient.”
Crab and bacon: there’s always next year.
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