When the 6th anniversary of The French Kitchen started approaching, we knew we wanted to do something special for a party. We were scratching our heads thinking of ideas when it hit us: a Chefs Competition! We thought this was a great event idea for two reasons.
First, it allows us to spend time making memories with the community that we love. Second, it showcases some of the fantastic culinary talent found not only here at The French Kitchen, but the greater Colorado Springs area.
Predictably, the contest was an adrenaline-fueled spectacle that felt like it could be pulled straight from your favorite chef competition television show. Keep reading to find out how the event unfolded.
Five excellent chefs competed in this event, including:
- Chef Nate Potter (Pastry Chef Instructor at The French Kitchen): Anyone who’s taken a class with Chef Potter knows that he’s an expert in all things pastries. This is thanks to his eighteen-year career at The Broadmoor Hotel. At The French Kitchen, Chef Potter continues to hone his culinary craft while passing on his knowledge to any students willing to learn. Chef Nate is also passionate about cooking and is fearlessly excited about entering a non-pastry competition.
- Chef Andre Derrill (Chef Instructor at The French Kitchen): Chef Andre is a newcomer to The French Kitchen, but he’s already proven his culinary prowess. Following a twenty-year career in management, he enrolled in culinary school to pursue his true passion. Chef Andre has worked at numerous restaurants over the years, including Cheyenne Mountain Country Club where he met his mentor Chef Matt Richardson.
- Chef Eric Brenner (Chef/Owner of Red Gravy): Chef Eric Brenner began his culinary career 38 years ago starting as a dishwasher and worked his way up to owning his very own Red Gravy in Downtown COS. He has worked in many different elements of the industry from independent restaurants, hotels, and country clubs, to opening multi-unit F&B programs all over the country. Chef Brenner has garnered multiple awards in numerous media formats and has been on Food Network competitions including a win on Guys Grocery Games in 2014.
- Chef Mario Vasquez (Chef/Owner of Colorado Craft): Born and raised in Northern California in the small town of Vacaville, Mario’s culinary influence is rooted in his very young memories of family gatherings. Coming from a father who was born into a family of 16 siblings and a mother with an equally large family, Mario has fond memories of the family’s meal preparation. From his uncles cooking whole pigs in the backyard to his grandmother making tortillas and grinding fresh hominy by hand for posole, everyone gathered in a tiny dining room to enjoy the cherished family meal.
- Chef Carolina Ascanio (Private Chef): Chef Carolina Ascanio is a graduate of PPCC’s Culinary Arts program. Her main interests lie in fusion cuisine & molecular gastronomy. In addition to being a private chef, she also hosts cooking classes, caters for events, and develops recipes.
To judge the event we selected three distinguished, impartial individuals. They included Teresa Farney, Food Editor from The Gazette, Matthew Schipper, Independent Journalist, and a very special French judge, and Chef Omar-Pierre, owner of Le Frigo and ex-guest chef instructor at TFK. Our very own Blandine and VIP Bonnie hosted the competition.
First, and most importantly, fair play is required. We know that the competitive spirit can sometimes get the best of people. But at the end of the day, we wanted this event to be fun and courteous for all those involved. Second, the chefs can bring in 1 ingredient and 1 piece of equipment from home. Anything else they might need will be supplied by The French Kitchen.
Third, there are 4 rounds of competition. At the end of each round, a chef will be eliminated until the final chef remains. Forth, each round features a mystery challenge or twist that the chefs are unaware of.
Lastly, in each round, the chefs are required to make 4 portions of any of the food they make, all plated separately. 3 of these portions will go toward the judges and 1 toward the presenters.
Our 1st round started with a bang! We gave all 5 chefs the task of creating a perfect bite that represents them in 20 short minutes. The twist? No large, sharp chef’s knives to rely on. Instead, we provided them with small pairing knives. Now, anyone who’s tried to cut something larger, like an onion, with a pairing knife knows what a pain they can be. Still, all 5 chefs performed admirably.
Everyone agreed that the first round was a bit hectic. But what do you expect when you put five chefs in a kitchen with a limited amount of time to make the perfect bite? Because the kitchen was so crowded with pro chefs Blandine added an extra 5 minutes to the clock. However, any chefs that finished before the 20-minute mark would receive 3 extra points during judging.
After a chaotic seventeen minutes, Chef Carolina was the first one to get her dish served with 3 minutes to spare! For her bite, Chef Carolina utilized fresh arepa dough she brought from home. On this delicious maize dough, she plated a well-season shrimp covered in tasty Spanish paprika and fresh lime juice. Chef Carolina explained how important this dish was to her grandmother in Venezuela, and we can see why.
Finishing in second was Chef Eric. For his dish, he highlighted his French and Italian background by serving frog legs Provençale. In addition to the usual suspects of garlic, tomatoes, and olive oil, he also added capers to wake up the judges’ palates. Third to finish was our very own Chef Nate. For his bite, he chose to use house-made potato chips. On it, he created a steak tartare with a diverse range of delicious ingredients including capers, Dijon mustard, red onions, and dill.
Chef Mario finished forth offering the judges his unique spin of Leche de Tigre. This classic ceviche dish uses citrus to cure the fish. For his version, Chef Mario used scallops seasoned with sumac, then marinated in fresh orange. He plated this delicious protein on top of a freshly fried tortilla chip and served the whole thing in a flavorful broth.
Now all five chefs finished in under twenty minutes, however, Chef Andre cut it close with only seconds to spare. However, everyone agreed that his bite looked like a true work of art. He served the judges medium rare lamb seasoned with cumin on a crostini. In addition, he also had a white wine-based cheese sauce with chives and red wine-braised onions.
All the judges agreed that all the food was delicious (although a bit strange to be eating early in the morning). However, it was Chef Nate’s delicious steak tartare that ultimately won the round.
Unfortunately, Chef Andre’s race to get his dish in under 20 minutes was ultimately his downfall. The judges said that although his dish was tasty it needed a touch of salt. Because the competition was so close, this small mistake cost him an elimination.
For our 2nd and 3rd rounds, we split off the 4 remaining chefs into 2 groups: Chef Nate and Chef Carolina in one and Chef Eric and Chef Mario in another. During the 2nd round Chef Nate and Chef Carolina were tasked with making both an entrée and a side in 45 minutes. The only caveat is they needed to incorporate one mystery ingredient: sandwich bread.
Because round 2 had both more time and fewer chefs in the kitchen, it was a much chiller vibe than the first round. In fact, despite it being a competition there was a spirit of camaraderie as Chef Nate helped Chef Carolina find ingredients around the kitchen. As the chefs focused on their dishes the kitchen was filled with the delicious smells of fish and shrimp.
Both chefs finished with time to spare before serving their entrée and sides to the judges. Chef Carolina served her dish first. For her entrée, she plated Holland fish covered in a flavorful relish and plated over a delicious tomato-based Romesco sauce. Her side consisted of a light arugula salad with a bright dressing and plenty of croutons made with the sandwich bread.
Chef Nate went down the comfort food route serving penne pasta in a cream sauce with shrimp and a bright Gremolata with bread crumbs from the sandwich bread.
Like the first round, both dishes were incredibly close when it came to judging. Despite being covered in a hearty cream sauce, Chef Nate’s pasta still managed to taste light and flavorful thanks to a delicious base of white wine, shallots, and thyme. Chef Carolina’s dish was bright and colorful with zings of acid present in the salad and fish. The only tiebreaker was the fact that Chef Carolina’s dish was just a little too salty. Because of this, Chef Nate would go on to the final round.
During the 3rd round Chef Eric and Chef Mario faced off with a similar challenge: entrée and a side in 45 minutes or less. The only difference was their imposed mystery ingredient. Instead of sandwich bread, these chefs needed to use a baguette.
Chef Eric and Chef Mario’s dishes both utilized many of the same ingredients like leeks, pancetta, and croutons made from the baguette. However, even though they looked similar they both tasted incredibly different.
Chef Eric served roasted chicken thighs over a risotto-style base of potatoes and leeks instead of rice. In addition, he made a flavorful sauce using chicken stock he brought from home. He mixed this with curry seasoning to create a delicious sauce that prevented the chicken from going dry and topped it with crispy ham.
Like Chef Carolina, Chef Mario also utilized a seared Holland fish. He plated this over an asparagus puree. On the side, he served lemon-butter asparagus with leeks braised in chicken stock, butter, salt, and lemon juice. He also topped his dish with crispy ham and croutons made from the baguette.
As you can guess, both dishes were delicious. However, it was Chef Mario that won the round thanks to his creative use of croutons. All the judges agreed that he took an ingredient that was already delicious (baguettes from The French Kitchen) and elevated them to a whole new level. With round 3 over, Chef Mario prepared himself to take on Chef Nate in the final.
The moment you’ve been waiting for! Round 4: the showdown between Chef Nate and Chef Mario. With this challenge, the chefs needed to make 3 dishes — an appetizer, entrée, and dessert — within 75 minutes. However, this time there were not 1, but 2 twists standing in the way of the gold medal! The first challenge included 2 mystery ingredients that the chefs both needed to incorporate into their dishes — one savory, the other sweet.
The savory ingredient was Morbier, a mild cheese known for its soft, creamy flavor. The sweet ingredient was concentrated pink lemonade.
After 30 minutes the chefs experienced their second surprise. For fifteen minutes they were given a voluntary helper, picked by the judges, from the audience.
In addition, they were also given pro assistants toward the end – Chef Nate was assigned Chef Eric and Chef Mario was assigned Chef Carolina. Thanks to the volunteer helpers Mary and Amy, Chef Nate and Chef Mario were able to get ahead on the arduous task of creating three dishes in a little over an hour.
The dishes were served as they were completed. However, despite this fact, it was only Chef Mario’s appetizer – a tasty arugula salad – that went out early. The salad consisted of a bed of greens plated with pear, garlic, Morbier cheese, and candied walnuts. The whole thing was covered in a delicious dressing consisting of pear, dehydrated strawberries, mustard, and cayenne. For his entree, Chef Mario served beef tenderloin covered in a cumin-chili de arbol sauce. To balance out the heat from this dish he served it with eggplant covered in powdered sugar. This unique side helped balance out the bitterness of the beef. For dessert, he offered the judges Brie cheese whipped with the pink lemonade concentrate. He served this with poached pears seasoned with cinnamon, vanilla, and red wine.
Chef Nate took inspiration from classic Indian cuisine for most of his dishes. For his appetizer, he served a Samosa using potato, onion, fresh asparagus, Morbier cheese, and spices. Over this, he drizzled a green chutney similar to chimichurri. For his entree, Chef Nate provided the judges with what he called his Redemption Butter Chicken. This was topped with crispy chicken skin and cream, then plated over jasmine rice infused with spices. His dessert consisted of a Panna Cotta with a simple, but delicious, cherry chutney using raspberry lemonade concentrate and nuts.
Winner: Chef Mario Vasquez
In the end, it was Chef Mario who won the competition. As was the theme of the day, it was a close race. The judges thought both Chef Mario’s and Chef Nate’s desserts were equally delicious and impressive. However, it was Chef Mario’s unique use of powdered sugar in their eggplant side that helped his dish stand apart as something truly special.
And with that, our first-ever Chefs Competition came to a close. Should we continue this competition next year as a new tradition? If so, who do you think should compete? And what challenges should the chefs face? Let us know in the comment section below.