For better or worse, here I am—trapped in paradise. As long as I continue to live in this vital, inimitable spot on the globe,

I will continue to seek out the unique…the delicious…the innovative products, services and traditions of San Luis Obispo County.

Stay posted for a few of my favorite things.

About Me...

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A wanderlust at heart... captivated by the California Central Coast. Join me on my culinary and vino-infused adventures as I explore and discover the regional novelties of San Luis Obispo County that make living here...easy to stay...and hard to leave.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

SLO Showdown

Gummy bears, raisins, fortune cookies…and frog legs?! These secret ingredients (revealed only moments before two top San Luis Obispo County chefs took center stage to vie for the winning title of Paso Robles Olive Festival’s Head-to-Head Chef Competition) captivated the audience, evoking laughter and surprise. But this seemingly incongruous combination of fodder didn’t faze Chefs Giancarlo Cucumo or Neil Smith, a long-time family friend. They jumped into action, each armed with their knives and cooking utensils; full kitchen stations and pantry of supplies; an array of fresh and interesting ingredients—including olives and a selection of SLO County's Olea Farm olive oils; and maybe most importantly, their sous chefs.

With the clock ticking and only one hour for each team to devise three unique dishes—a salad or appetizer, an entrée showcasing the star ingredient (frog legs), and a dessert—my sister and I along with our friend, Chef Paul Gorton, eagerly watched and wondered what culinary masterpieces would result from this friendly, but intense competition. Chef Paul mused, “You can’t do anything with frog legs.” But the knives started flying. The vegetables got sliced and diced at alarming speeds. The skillets and ovens heated up and fragrant scents began to waft in the blustery wind. These culinary teams, although cooking on a gazebo in the middle of Paso Robles’ Downtown City Park amidst 120 olive oil, winery, and other vendors (with hundreds of visitors milling about), looked right at home and up for any challenge.

Passionate about the art of crafting food into delicious meals, these two professional chefs are no strangers to pressure. Night after night they immerse themselves in the intense kitchen-life that goes hand-in-hand with working in successful, well-respected restaurants. Chef Giancarlo, the owner of Giancarlo's Ristorante Mediterraneo in Morro Bay, and Chef Neil, the Executive Chef at Windows on the Water, also in Morro Bay, kept their cool over the next hour. While they worked their magic in the makeshift kitchen, the Culinary Arts Program Director for Cuesta College, Chef Phillip Riccomini, entertained the captive audience, throwing out food jokes, fun culinary facts, and surmising what these tight-lipped, focused chefs were creating for the panel of four judges. As the hour drew to a close and the teams scrambled to plate their dishes, the seated panel readied themselves to judge the flavors, textures, creativity, appearance, and use of the secret ingredients (as well as the olives and Olea Farm olive oil) in their upcoming feast of the senses.

Chef Giancarlo charmed everyone with his Italian accent and wowed the judges and onlookers by beginning his ad hoc meal with a beautiful salad tossed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, mixed with a medley of caramelized raisins, fruit-stuffed olives, and poached pears. He followed with a simple pasta puttanesca, the linguine flavored with garlic olive oil, Kalamata olives, and tomatoes; topped off with a fried mixture of parmesan cheese, raisins, and fortune cookies. His main dish—frog leg casserole—started off pan-fried with olive oil, raisins, and white wine, then finished baking in the oven. Served with olive crepes stuffed with jelly and sundried tomatoes, this dish was a hit. His caudled Italian dessert of zabaglione pudding (made with fruit jelly, a touch of olive oil, sherry wine, sugar, and egg yolks) gently spooned over gummy bears in wine glasses, made clever use of this chewy hodgepodge ingredient.

Chef Neil’s brilliant creations were equally impressive. Sporting his signature dark sunglasses and admitting that, “The gummy bears threw me for a loop,” his first course proved that he closed that loophole. His salad of segmented oranges, white peaches, and Roma tomatoes flavored with basil olive oil touched with a hint of orange and lemon citrus, included the ubiquitous gummy bears. His main entrée of frog legs, stuffed with Kalamata olives served over thyme-infused rice with sun-dried tomatoes and green beans, was lightly covered with a tarragon-herb butter sauce and plated beautifully. His gorgeous dessert served up in martini glasses, with layers of caramelized peaches, lemon blush crème anglaise, fresh berry compote and fortune cookie "dust" sprinkled on top, made us all envious of the judges.

As the panel voted and tallied their scores, the culinary teams toasted one another—Chef Giancarlo sipped on a much-deserved glass of white wine, while Chef Neil and his sous chef went straight for the Corona beers. In the end, the judges’ tough decision edged out Chef Neil by only one point and Chef Giancarlo was narrowly declared the winner. Look for Chef Giancarlo at next year’s Olive Festival when he competes again to defend his reigning title. In the meantime, I foresee visits in my near future to Morro Bay to enjoy the clever creations of these ingeneous chefs (minus the gummy bears). Buon Appetito!

News Flash: Later that afteroon, the event organizers discovered a miscalculation of the winning scores. The innovative cuisine of both teams resulted in a tie, leaving Chefs Giancarlo and Neil both as this year's reigning title-holders. Rumor has it they will share the coveted trophy below during the next year, on display in each of their respective restaurants for six months.

All Text and Photos Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth in SLO. All Rights Reserved.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

Elizabeth, Wonderful Pictures!! My husband loves frog legs. This would have been his event. Thanks Kathy.

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