The Governor's Culinary Challenge: Who made the grade? | Rock Candy

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Governor's Culinary Challenge: Who made the grade?

Posted By and on Tue, May 7, 2013 at 4:20 PM


Last week, we were fortunate enough to attend the Governor’s Culinary Challenge at the Capital Hotel. The event placed ten highly acclaimed Arkansas chefs head-to-head in a friendly competition and tasting event in which each chef dished out one or two small plates for the hungry, rabid masses constantly bombarding their table in search of their next morsel of food. The night was brimming with elegance, class, and style—a real see-and-be-seen event for all in attendance. We did out best to look respectable and dignified and joined the crowd for this delectable $100-per-head dinner party. It was a grand affair, to be sure, and we sampled each and every bit of food available (and admittedly, we sampled a couple of them twice). A few chefs really brought their proverbial A-game to the event, doling out some truly spectacular bites, but it was clear that a few of these culinary heavy-weights should rethink their strategy for next year. Here’s our breakdown of who made the grade (and what grade they made) and who fell a bit flat:


Joel Antunes (Ashley’s and the Capital Hotel): The latest addition to the Capital Hotel’s culinary team, Chef Antunes’ dish was probably one of the most anticipated of the night. Chef Antunes was friendly, gracious, and warm…his thick French accent warmed out hearts just a little. He prepared a “coconut soup” served with a small crab dumpling and fava bean. We had issues with the consistency of the broth, however, and found it to be somewhere between a foam and an actual soup—runny and a tad too watery. The flavors were excellent, however, cool and fragrant coconut complemented by soft, succulent crab. With a few tweaks, this dish would have probably bowled us over, but as it was, we left just a tad disappointed. Chef Antunes’ dessert course was a play on the classic “Kit-Kat” candy bar, with a thin layer of crumbled, crispy wafer lining the bottom of a glass, topped with a chocolate mousse. Again, textural issues were at play, and we found the mousse too grainy for our liking. A valiant effort, with some noteworthy flavors. Grade: B-

Lee Richardson (formerly of Ashley’s and the Capital Hotel): Chef Richardson left a long string of admirers when he stepped down from his position at Ashley’s. It was comforting to witness the acclaimed chef back in action and we, like most of you, are highly anticipating his future moves. But he was not able to provide us with any clues as to what his upcoming plans might be, despite our insistent pressing—we’ll just have to watch and wait. Chef Richardson prepared a dish that sounded spectacular on paper, but was a bit lost in translation. The man even brought his very impressive water oven to prepared sous vide egg (a method that provides carefully regulated, even cooking)—we were intrigued. The crux of the dish, however, was a fried catfish croquette with a sweet and sour sauce—the chef dubbed, “pepper jelly.” The catfish was well done, not overly fishy, tender, with a crunchy exterior. But the sauce was a little off-putting and did not seem to complement the fish as well as we’d hoped. It was reminiscent of dunking a Gorton’s fish stick in that jarred “Thai sweet chili sauce,” and we were left wishing for a little more from Richardson’s table. Grade: C+

Brian Deloney (Maddie’s Place): We’ve had mixed feelings about the dishes put out and Chef Deloney’s Riverdale restaurant, Maddie’s, but we were unanimously in favor of his dish offered this night. Continuing his Cajun/Creole tendencies, Maloney prepared a “shrimp and alligator cheesecake,” which may sound somewhat odd at first, but tasted fantastic. The small cylindrical molds of savory cheesecake were composed of a rich, dense, cream cheese-heavy “cheesecake,” chock full of sweet, briny shrimp bits and chunks of mild, tender alligator. Served cold, it really took us both by surprise, but this is one surprise we’d be happy to be a part of again. Grade: A-


Gilbert Alaquinez (The Governor’s Mansion): Chef Alaquinez was one of the chefs we were least familiar with prior to the event—perhaps we even expected him to be overshadowed by a few of culinary headliners also in attendance that night. But with Gov. Beebe and his wife Ginger at tableside to back this team up, the chef definitely put his best foot forward this night. We were both won over by the cold carrot soup with a touch of sour cream. The soup was surprisingly spicy, heavy with cumin and chili powder, but not to the point of being overwhelming. The sweet carrot undertones made a fabulous base for some of the more vivid flavors prominent in the soup. A pulled pork “banh mi” was also served, but we found this to be a rather pedestrian pork sandwich, without much pizzazz—definitely not as Vietnamese in nature as we had hoped. The dessert course was delightful, though. Chef offered a “Napolean” trio of French macarons: chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. These were well executed—crisp, airy outer cookie with a creamy, rich filling within. They were a bit chewier in texture than we’ve had elsewhere, but we were pleased with this difference rather than perturbed by it. Grade: A-

Jason Knapp (UCA, formerly of the Governor’s Mansion): Another chef we were mostly unfamiliar with prior to our tasting this night, but who left a rather favorable impression on us after we were served his food. Chef Knapp prepared a cream of poblano soup paired with a garbanzo bean fritter stuffed with creamy goat cheese. The description alone had us drooling, and we were pleased that the flavors translated successfully on the plate. The fritter was served warm, crispy and nutty. The cool, melted goat cheese pairing perfectly with the hot, mashed bean fritter. But it was the soup that really stole the show—spicy, vibrant, and refreshing, the creamy soup was one of the night’s great highlights. An addition of puffed quinoa and paprika really pushed the dish over the top. We applaud you, Chef Knapp. Grade: A

Peter Brave (Brave New Restaurant): Despite not being all that new anymore, Chef Brave's Brave New Restaurant remains a favorite among Little Rock Diners — chef and restaurant alike regularly feature among top picks in the various "readers choice" awards year after year. Chef Brave's contribution to the evening was a potato and walleye canape that ranks among the most surprising dishes of the evening: a small piece of potato, cooked so that it almost tasted like bread, tomato jam, and a piece of poached walleye that was so mild and tender that it would have been hard to tell it was fish if there hadn't been a sign saying so. The result was a little mouthful that tasted like a mini pizza with cheese and all, despite the lack of any dairy. We aren't sure what strange wizardry is afoot with this dish, but we do know it was a good thing. Grade: A


Donnie Ferneau (formerly of Ferneau): Chef Ferneau was in full effect at his table, preparing portion after blazing portion of his signature Banana's Foster. The venue didn't lend itself to the usual pairing of ice cream, but a small piece of shortbread made an acceptable substitute for the luscious, caramelized bananas. Less successful was the pork tenderloin with shallot mustard glaze served up as the main dish. The mustard glaze was perfection, adding a nice piquant kick to a pork loin that was a touch dry and had little other flavor going for it. The potato accompaniment was equally disappointing and bland. Cooking in such large portions is tough, however, and that glaze remains one of our favorite flavors of the night, even if the protein was lackluster. Grade: B-

Capi Peck (Trio’s): Our consensus favorite of the night was the Trio's table — they hit homeruns on both of their dishes. Their main course was a rich and buttery tuna tataki served on a crisp wonton wrapper and topped with fresh avocado. The richness of the tuna and avocado together made for a decadent flavor and mouthfeel, and the crisp wrapper below added just the right amount of crunchy contrast. The dessert they made was almost cheating — strawberry shortcake with cream and shortbread at just the right time of year for sweet, ripe Arkansas strawberries. From tuna to berries, everything on this table was at the peak of freshness, and every element of flavor hit just the right note. Grade: A+

Mark Abernathy (Red Door/Loca Luna): Mark Abernathy hasn't been able to catch a break on Eat Arkansas lately...and he won't catch one here. The Loca Luna owner's catfish chile relleno ranks among one of the worst things we've ever put in our mouths. Soggy, slimy, and so fishy that we wondered just what those catfish had been eating, this was one of the few plates we were unable to finish. It's not usually smart to pair fish with cheese in the first place, but this fish was of such poor quality that we maintain that it wasn't smart to pair it with anything at all. A true disappointment. Grade: F

Stephen Burrow (Restaurant Forty-Two): The Clinton Library restaurant table appeared at first glance to be serving something right up our alley: pork terrine. Normally, terrine is one of our favorite things in this world, and Little Rock is no stranger to well-made versions of this charcuterie classic. Unfortunately, an overuse of sweet spices really ruined this one for us. The texture of the loaf was excellent, and we can't compliment the presentation of the plate enough, but an overabundance of allspice, nutmeg, and other sweet spices just made the whole affair inedible. Sweet spices are important to flavoring a terrine, it's true, but just like with salt, it's easy to overdo them. Still, points for presentation, and for being brave enough to serve such a rustic dish at a fancy party. Grade: D

To be fair to all participants, the format for this dinner was not an easy one. Creating a great dish, scaling it down to a small plate, then multiplying that plate by hundreds of people makes it difficult to maintain quality. In addition, these chefs weren't pulling food from their own kitchens, but rather using pre-prepared food with only minimal on-site cooking. This might explain why cold dishes like Trio's tataki were so successful, while hot dishes like the catfish relleno were not. We hope that this is an event that will catch on in the state, as it was an excellent night to meet some of the brightest minds in Arkansas food.

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