The first thing one sees when walking into the Culinary Fight Club event space, held this month at 1st Ward Events at Chop Shop, is the 'pantry'. It's hard to miss a five-foot long table set just in front of the stage groaning with foodstuffs. Every cut of pork imaginable, sacks of onions, bunches of greens, bottles of sauces and scores else, with an occasional apple or potato rolling off and falling to the floor. Most of the pantry contents were supplied by Reinhart Foodservice. Utensils clatter and knives sharpen as five contestants and their teams of two ready themselves for the battle of the evening. It is Culinary Fight Club and the title of pork master is at stake.
The rules of Culinary Fight Club are simple:
- 45-second pantry race to pick all your ingredients (if an ingredient falls to the floor during the pantry race, it's eliminated from the pickings)
- 60 minutes to cook
- 1 winner
For audiences, Culinary Fight Club is not the typical competitive cooking show. Rather than sitting in stadium seats watching on a big screen as hosts provide narrative, the attendees of culinary fight club are part of the show. There's no seating. Instead, everyone is free to get up close and personal with the cooking stations and engage in conversation with the chefs as they cook. (A word to the wise: when a chef is deftly searing meat on a ripping hot cast iron or rapidly making over 100 servings of dumplings or waffles or noodles from scratch, it may be best to quietly observe and save your questions for later.) Wondering what it's like to be in the thick of such frenzy? Here's a recap...
60-minutes on the clock – Stand BACK! The chefs are sprinting to the pantry to grab everything they need within 45 seconds.
58-minute mark – The room fills with the strong scents of smoke and pork fat.
50-minute mark – The room is 80 degrees in the center and 30 degrees around the periphery. Cause of simultaneous temperatures? Smoke and heat are filling the room and the back door needs to be propped for fear of setting off the smoke alarm.
45-minute mark – Essence of bacon has seeped into my pores, goosebumps prickle my flesh, and the race is on.
44-minute mark – A whistle pierces the chatter. Rule violation!
40-minute mark – Pause to chat with Cheferee, Anthony Martorina, impressively on his game for someone who is also mingling with the crowds and posting on social media. The man is a spinning top!
30-minute mark – Complimentary Nolet's Gin cocktails and Sam Adams beer flowing. Contestants are getting fiercer. Crowd is getting hungrier.
25-minute mark – Decide to stop hovering around the chefs and play a few hands at the Blackjack table. Relief that it's play-for-free.
13-minute mark – Annoyance that Blackjack table is play-for-free because I win a ton of chips.
10-minute mark – Chefs now eligible for early submission. Whoever submits first can present immediately. Chef Ross Johnson, of Carriage Greens Country Club, takes advantage of this rule with his pork spring roll.
5-minute mark – I consume four pork spring rolls, one of which I pluck straight out of the tongs. My fingers and tastebuds hold no regrets.
0-minute mark – TIME called! Chefs present in order of the straws they picked before the fight began. As each dish goes up for presenting, the chef briefly explains their offering and then patiently waits for feedback. Judges take thoughtful bites.
After another fifteen or twenty minutes of deliberation, while the audience taste tests and puts in their votes, the winners are announced. The winner of Chicago's Culinary Fight Club: Pork was Lance Avery of Big Fork Brands, three-time Culinary Fight Club champion with his pork and noodle dish.
The audience taster's choice award went to Tony Balestreri of Kimski for his applewood smoked pork and handmade dumplings.
And then its over. I imagine the chefs are left with emotions ranging from great triumph to deep disappointment. The audience is left with are adrenaline-filled memories and clothing that is forever perfumed with bacon.
It's been a week. I still smell like bacon. Regret? None.
Next month, Culinary Fight Club: The Chitown Taco!
P.S. If you're hungry for more and don't want to miss a single Behind Chicago Food story, be sure to subscribe by e-mail (completely spam-free with the option to unsubscribe at any time)!