Battle of the Chefs

After two weekends of judging Iron Chef-style smackdowns — first at the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend and most recently at Kendall Jackson’s Heirloom Tomato Festival — I’m stuffed, exhausted, dehydrated and thoroughly impressed. From the haze that is my addled brain, some juicy tidbits I wanted to share with BiteClubbers.

– The big winner during Saturday’s KJ event was the winery’s own chef, Justin Wangler. Consider the fact that Wangler was competing against some of the biggest names in California cuisine — three of Food & Wine’s Top New Chefs, including previous winner Sean O’Brien (formerly of Myth, but opening a new SF restaurant called Zinnia), E. Michael Reidt (another former winner of LA) and Suzanne Tracht of LA’s Jar.

I’ll have to admit that Pop Rocks and ceviche from Reidt nearly won it for me, but Wangler’s incredible use of summer ingredients put him over the top. Well, that and the Coors & tomato juice coolers he sent to all the judges. Nice touch. If Wangler ever decides to open a restaurant, look out.

– If you’ve never had tomato creme brulee, I’m truly sad for you. On Saturday dozens of local chefs served up tomato creations for the annual Heirloom festival. John Ash restaurant’s creamy, savory brulee was the runaway crowd favorite, served by Chef Thomas Schmidt (though we hear it was a longtime recipe of former JA chef, Jeffrey Madura). Other fascinating ‘mater dishes included tomato cotton candy (Kendall Jackson) and tomato macaroons (better than they sound).

– Seen on the scene: Restaurant magnate Pat Kuleto, most recently of Nick’s Cove and John Ash (a fellow judge and recent winner of the IACP’s 2008 Cooking Instructor of the Year).

– Saturday’s event was a serious steamer, so imagine my shock at seeing none other than Chef Douglas Keane, the multi-starred Cyrus chef manning a fryer most of the day. The restaurant was serving up fried green tomatoes and Keane sweated it out over hot grease for hours without complaint. And even an occasional smile.

– Keane wasn’t the only chef manning his station, Zin’s Jeff Mall was serving up “not your grandmother’s tomato aspic” with his wife, Susan Dunphy Mall. Regina Silvers manned Syrah’s station while hubbie Josh MC’d the chef competition with local celeb Marcy Smothers (of the Food Guy & Marcy radio show on KZST Sundays at 6pm).

– Speaking of Food Guy (who is local celeb Guy Fieri), Smothers told me that fame hasn’t changed her co-host a bit and that he’s every bit the same cool guy he was when they started the show. Such a love fest.

Restaurant Eloise fans will be excited to hear that the Sebastopol restaurant will be open for lunch starting this week. Chef Ginevra Iverson, who was serving up tomatoes on Saturday as well, says they’ll be doing a fixed-price menu to keep things simple. I also talked to the folks at Bistro 29 in Santa Rosa and they’re hoping to start doing lunch in the near future. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

– Looking way back to Labor Day weekend, if you haven’t already heard, it was last minute entry Thomas Schmidt, the new chef at John Ash, who reigned supreme. I can say that all of us at the judges table were blown away by his precise European preparations. I saw him again this weekend at the tomato festival and he let me know that he’s been working hard on the new menu and has been in the kitchens there for about a month or so. Kudos to the other chefs who all worked tirelessly and impressed greatly — Janine Falvo, Carlo Cavallo and Jeff Mall.