Saturday, September 26, 2009

Cheftestant Cook-Off: Bravo's Marcel Vigneron vs. Food Network's Jeffrey Saad

TV Celebrity Chef Cook-Off
Los Angeles Magazine
The Grove
189 The Grove Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90036

Chef Marcel Vigneron of Top Chef Season 2 now sous cheffing under Jose Andres at The Bazaar.


Chef Jeffrey Saad of The Next Food Network Star, now making cooking videos as Ingredient Smuggler for The Food Network.

When did celebrity cook-offs become to the early 2000's what American Bandstand was to the 1960's? I have not been tracking this cultural zeitgeist since its genesis, only purposefully for the last 2 years or so, and probably circumstantially in my mind for the past 6 years. We (the universal we) now DVR religiously at least one cooking show, care where our produce was grown, know the hours of several local farmer's markets and have read both the biography of Alice Waters and the raunchy early memoirs of Anthony Bourdain.  And apparently we squee like stuck pigs when the handsome Marcel Vigneron messes with a nitro charge and swoon at the sight of sexy Jeff Saad gesticulating over how to get a good sear on some seafood.

After attending and writing about the Rosa Mexicano opening party earlier this week, Shauna from The Valentine Group LA took note and invited me to sit at the media table for Los Angeles Magazine's Celebrity Cook-Off at The Grove.  This was their third celebrity cook-off, and the most well attended.  Also demo'ing for us were chefs from The Cheesecake Factory, Maggiano's, Morel's and The Farm.  As these four chefs cooked, little plates carrying samples of their food circulated through the crowd for everyone to taste. Let me set the stage for you.

Each table was set with several bottles of Evian, event placard, linens & cutlery, etc.  It looked quite posh actually, the Valentine Group did a great job.

There were quite a lot of tables, each sitting a maximum of 6. Someone mentioned afterward there had been 250+ people viewing the event. Impressive.

Other sponsors included Malibu Family Wines serving Semler Merlot and...

 many bottles of Saddlerock Ranch Chardonnay.

Seemingly endless bottles of wine passed by our table, and magically stopped there until they were empty.  Also, at my table, in addition to the wine, were: Yolanda  the ubiquitous journalist who writes the Plywood Reports for Eater LA, Andrea who writes an Easy Meals column for the L.A. Examiner (with Brendan her manpanion), and John from Social Domain. Great food, lots of wine and good company? Winning combo any night of the week.

Viking Ranges were also a sponsor.  All the chefs cooked on one of these babies.

Does want.

Our hosts were, from the left: Leo Quinones of KCRW,

and in the aloha shirt, Merrill Schindler of Zagat.

This series of pics was too good to resist.

First chef up to bat was Scott Ross of Maggiano's. From Maggiano's website I learn that although they are a chain, every Maggiano's has a head chef and every dish is made from scratch. Good to know.  Chef Scott made for us a beef braciole.  Above Scott, from his mouth to your ears, "beats his meat" before rolling the beef cutlet around ground beef, Italian vegetables and asiago cheese.  He then cooks the roll in a red wine and tomato sauce.

Above is his finished product. It looks gorgeous and I can clearly see the wrap.

Above is the piece handed out to the audience.  It tasted great, however I was not getting the wrap experience. Both John and Yolanda said it was easy to tell with their piece that it was something wrapped around something else.  However, mine simply reminded me of a delicious Italian sausage.  The piece shared with the audience was made in the kitchen set up in a giant white tent behind the event floor as opposed to being made by the chef onstage.

Also cooking for us in the initial set of demos was Eric Bouloud (sp?) from Morel's French restaurant at The Grove. I have eaten at Morel's many times with D, before or after shopping and/or the occasional movie. Conversing about my dining experiences there with John led to the start of a rich discussion about food in L.A., how most people deem acceptable very mediocre food experiences as part of L.A. culture. Sadly, our environment was very loud and interactive, the conversation had to be put off. But we plan to get back to it.  One of the reasons I am interested in John's opinion is that not only is he an L.A. native, but he is an L.A. native who loves L.A. Typically people bemoaning L.A. are not from L.A. and will use any platform to express their disdain for our fair city. Not a native myself, I nevertheless have a deep love of Los Angeles and am always fascinated to hear critique about the city in which I make my home by someone who loves it as much as I do.

Nevertheless, Chef Eric was making boeuf bourgignon.  Above he explains how to make a great celery root/potato puree and the process of caramelization.  Chef Eric uses half celery root for flavoring the puree and half potato to get the flavor just right.

This was one of the two best bites of the evening. While my picture is not great (again, camera learning curve and all), the flavor of this was sickly delicious. My mouth is watering for it again, right now at 10 in the morning.  The meat was tender, the celery root puree was smooth without being gloopy and had just the right proportion of heft to lift in its texture. Omnomnomnom.

Next up is Chef Hans Goplen from The Farm of Beverly Hills.  Not to be confused with L.A. Farm where Top Cheftestant Stefan is now cooking.  Apparently their schtick is that they too make everything from scratch.  I don't think this can be a schtick for much longer. These days people dining in any restaurant more reputable than a Denny's expects scratch. Whether or not they are getting it is another blog post altogether.  Chef Hans demo'd a chicken pot pie.

Chef Hans' beautiful chicken pot pie.

Our personalized mini versions of the pie. How fricking cute is this? It was good. If I were craving a pot pie, I would go to The Farm for one. The crust was light and in the veggies and meat in the pie sat atop mashed potatoes. What's not to love?

For some reason in all my gazillions of pics from the evening, I did not get one of the chef cooking for The Cheescake Factory. A little cheesy trivia? The Cheesecake Factory at The Grove is the highest grossing Cheesecake Factory per square foot of any in the chain. Out of 146. And it ain't small.  The chef cooked us a "jambalaya". Served on pasta, instead of rice. It was meh. I hate to say it, but definitely Cheesecake Factory food. Not bad but definitely not a true jambalaya, no rice and the flavors didn't seem melded together quite right.

What wasn't meh was a tiny portion of The Cheesecake Factory cherry cheesecake.  Not passionate about cheesecake, I admit The Cheesecake Factory makes a decent one. Yolanda was loving it. Loving.

Please note my Sharpie. I am a Sharpie whore.

After all the drooling and snacking, and snacking and drinking, and drinking and chatting it was finally time for the celebrity portion of the evening.  There were to be three judges of Chef Marcel's and Chef Jeffrey's food, two from sponsors (Viking Ranges and  2010 Buick Lacrosse) and yours truly. Yes, I got to help judge Chef Marcel's and Chef Jeffrey's food, and ZOMG it was so exciting.  Also chosen was one random member of the audience.  They instructed that it be a "normal" person, not a professional chef, not media, just someone who loves food. 

The women went wild.

I am surprised no one threw panties.

They chose Tina, from L.A. She doesn't cook at all, and she loves Top Chef.  Honestly, she did a great job. She was thoughtful and reflective about both chefs' food.

Marcel Vigneron approaches the stage, with entourage and security. I am serious.

Part of Marcel's entourage was the blonde hottie above, Steve the chef for Monsieur Marcel at The Original Farmer's Market. I can imagine a spin-off pilot...Celebrity Chef Entourage.

Chef Jeffrey is incredibly animated.

Not fully appreciating how dynamic he was on The Next Food Network Star, I wonder now if the episodes were edited to play down his dynamism, or if he was just having a hard time coming out of his shell on camera.

I found him to be warm, approachable and passionate. One of my table companions found him to be a bit over the top.  I think his personality will really translate to TV.  I was impressed with his enthusiasm and sweet way with this fans.

He was this kind to everyone who approached him.

Marcel's affect is much quieter, more studious, more focused.

Occasionally while working he would simply toss the detritus of his efforts over his shoulder prompting Leo to comment on the dangers of standing behind Chef Marcel.

He spent much time focusing on the tools of his molecular gastronomic approach and only toward the end did he engage the audience and show some wit, leading me to wonder if some of that Malibu Family Wine had made it down his gullet while he was working.

Onto the food.  Both chefs had $100 dollars to spend to feed 5 people an appetizer and an entree.  Above, Marcel holds up the kaffir limes he brought with him, explaining the dishes he will prepare.
  • Kaffir Lime "smoked at the moment" Day Boat U-10 Scallops with Cauliflower Cous Cous.
  • Seared Lamb with Figs and Deconstructed Tzatziki.

Below while holding up his Chinese long beans, Jeffrey commits the faux pas of telling us he bought his produce at the Santa Monica Farmer's Market and not the Original Farmer's Market here on the premises. Ruh roh.

Jeffrey cooks:
  • Chinese Long Beans in Hoisin with Peanuts.
  • Scallop, Prawn and White Fish in Lemongrass Broth.

The four judges are provided the following clip board to rate the chefs' food on a scale of 1-5 in three categories.  Flavor, presentation and originality.

First Jeffrey's food.

food photos courtesy of Andrea Torng of Easy Meals Examiner and Run to Live

Chinese long beans in hoisin.  This was tasty but not particularly interesting or innovative. Accesible though, and I think most people could easily recreate this at home.  Not a huge fan of Chinese food, but I adore long beans.

food photos courtesy of Andrea Torng of Easy Meals Examiner and Run to Live
Pre-broth, Chef Jeff's seafood. One large scallop, prawn and white fish over which he pours a fragrant lemongrass broth. One of my favorite preparations of seafood, this was delicious, healthy and again unchallenging. Something I have been seeing in restaurants for years and have made at home many times.

food photos courtesy of Andrea Torng of Easy Meals Examiner and Run to Live
From Chef Marcel's mise-en-place comes...

food photos courtesy of Andrea Torng of Easy Meals Examiner and Run to Live

Smoked seared scallop sitting in cauliflower cous cous and a tom khai emulsion. Thai flavors are very forward in this dish, and the purple and white cous cous is actually made from cauliflower in the shape of cous cous. Although I have experienced the smoking sensation at The Bazaar before with a salmon dish, the spectacle is quite the crowd pleaser.  The scallops are over salted, which Marcel must have been worried about because he asked. I said no, meaning yes.

food photos courtesy of Andrea Torng of Easy Meals Examiner and Run to Live
However, his lamb dish was the best thing I tasted all night. Perfectly seared little lamb chops medium rare with beautiful in-season figs. The deconstructed tzatziki was what blew me away. All the flavors of a regular tzatziki were there, the yogurt, cucumber, dill, and some lemon zest.  What was beautiful about this deconstruction was the treatment of the cucumber. Chef Marcel had used something akin to a melon baller to make perfect little spheres of cucumber. It's hard to see in the background of Andrea's shot there, but the presentation of this dish and particularly the tztaziki was lovely.

x = number of years as a math teacher, y = years as an educational consultant. Therefore,  4 (10x + 3y) = I am an incredible nerd. Not only did I take charge of counting the ballots, but I recounted the tally three times, checked my work and considered the reasonableness of the outcome. What really struck me was the facts that: a) no one else wanted to count the ballots, and b) everyone just took my word for it, and a couple of the people looked like the counting of said ballots was somehow confusing and awe inspiring.  I think this reflection seals the coffin on my self-identification as a nerd. I can hear the dirt falling on the wooden roof of my sarcophagus as I consider what color pocket protector will go with my favorite Ella Moss top, and if I need a calculator more complicated than the one on my iPhone.

The tally was very close, surprisingly so from my perspective.  But I think the tally accurately reflected differences in food tastes and my own bias against hoisin sauce.  However, Marcel won by about 12 points, IIRC.

It was a wonderful evening with pleasant company, good food and too much wine for driving. Many thanks to Shauna and The Valentine Group for their excellent hosting and mad party throwing skills.


MyLastBite said...

Great recap! So bummed I missed it.

and I would TOTALLY WATCH "Celebrity Chef Entourage"!

Kristine G said...

What an exciting event! :)

LOL @ MyLastBite's comment about Celebrity Chef Entourage. I'd probably watch it, too.

I think it would've been interesting if it was kind of like "Iron Chef" or "Chopped" with mystery ingredients and several courses to cook.


weezermonkey said...

How fun! Yay for Marcel!

I'm glad somebody actually won. The last time I went to a cooking battle at The Grove, the judges declared it a tie. Stupid!

Unrelated -- the word verification for this comment is "cowshet." Thought that was kinda funny.

Andrea Torng said...

Great post! Love all the commentary and pictures. Hope to see you at the next food event!

Food, she thought. said...


I am thinking Celebrity Chef Entourage should be a cross between filming the chefs and their entourage at play after service hours and maybe one small cook off challenge a week. Eric Greenspan or Ludo Lefevbre would make great leads.

Nothing better than a word veerfication to make you chuckle.

It was really nice to meet you and tx for the photos!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Food, she thought,

Nice report! :) I, too, am sad I missed it. I must've missed all the announcements for this event. Bummer.

Thanks for the great recap and congrats on being a judge for the competition. :)

Hall-e said...

Wow Liz!!! Such a great post, and enjoyed every bit of this. Did I sure miss out?! haha

Anonymous said...

Just saw this linked on Eater LA. I know, I'm behind. But woohoo! And congrats on judging too, although I'm surprised it was close as well.

Incidentally, anyone else think "Ingredient Smuggler" is just a bad name? Makes me think he's swallowing condoms full of saffron or something.

Food, she thought. said...


There should be more to come. If I get an invite, I will give you a shout out.


You DID!!! We will conquer the food universe again sometime soon!


When I hear the title, "Ingredient Smuggler", I cannot get the term "butt pirate" out of my mind, but it's not a term I wanted in the main post for fear of alienating my mom.

Anonymous said...

Butt pirate, sausage smuggler. Images that are not great for TV. Oh well.

joanh said...

wow! i can't believe they have these events.. only in LA right? so fun... and that's awesome you were a judge!

and yes, i'd tivo celebrity chef entourage. haha