If the UFC had a chef’s division—Ultimate Fighting Chefs?—it might look something like the annual food-and-wine pairing battle at the New York Wine Experience. This year brought plenty of smack talk and macho bravado, plus a menu of creative, "Top that!" dishes and incredible wines.
Always among the most popular seminars at the event, this year’s chef’s battle included veterans Emeril Lagasse, José Andrés and restaurateur Danny Meyer, plus newcomer Michael Lomonaco, chef of Porter House in New York.
Emcee and executive editor Thomas Matthews reminded the audience of the rules. Each chef prepares a dish and then, with little more to go on than the name and the basic ingredients, Matthews and one of the other chefs compete to see who can come up with the best wine match. The winner is decided by a show of hands from the audience.
“So three of the people up here have skin in each match,” Matthews said, setting the playfully cocky tone of the proceedings. The banter ranged from topical issues like ending tipping in restaurants to presidential candidate Donald Trump, but most of the jest was aimed at the chefs by fellow chefs.
Except for Meyer, who isn’t a chef but runs Union Square Hospitality Group. Matthews noted that Meyer let Abram Bissell, executive chef of the Modern, devise the dish, and USHG wine director John Ragan choose the wine. “He just sits up here and accepts the applause,” Matthews teased.
The first dish was Lagasse’s potato salad with caviar and smoked sturgeon from Evans Farm. The chef said he was so impressed with the quality from this Florida fish farm that he built a simple dish around it as a showcase. The contestants took similar approaches for their matches: Andrés picked a Spanish white, a barrel-fermented Verdejo from Rueda, while Matthews chose a vivid, citrusy New Zealand Chardonnay. In the end, the audience was split over the best pairing, and Matthews called it a draw.
Then came Andrés’ piquillo pepper confit with crabmeat, topped with trout roe and ajo blanco. Matthews questioned Andrés’ use of trout roe: “What, José, you couldn’t afford caviar like Emeril?” Meyer applauded the dish, calling it “one of the most eye-popping I’ve tasted in my life.”
To go with it, Matthews chose a white, a juicy, floral Condrieu, while Lomonaco picked a bright, fresh Sicilian red from the Frappato grape, which Matthews called a daring choice. Sicilian by heritage, Lomonaco explained that the dish fit a “Sicilian narrative” and red wine is often consumed with fish in Sicily. While it had a fan following, in the end, the majority of guests voted for the Condrieu.
The third dish was a savory roasted pumpkin custard with hazelnuts and black truffle. Meyer said chef Bissell was trying to create a pumpkin patch of flavors. “Obviously, I would have used more truffle,” Andrés taunted after sampling it. “I mean with the money Danny makes.”
For his wine match, Lagasse picked a rich Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, while Matthews offered a vintage brut Champagne. The panel seemed divided on which wine worked best. Those who like a wine that contrasts the flavors of the food preferred the refined, palate-cleansing Champagne, while those looking for a complementary pairing chose the creamy Chardonnay. The audience shared similar feelings, with the Kistler narrowly winning out.
The final food creation was Michael Lomonaco’s duo of beef with a dry-aged strip steak with Italian salsa verde and a braised short rib with polenta and blue cheese. Meyer paired it with a Chianti Classico from the 2008 vintage, and Matthews chose a new-release, modern, concentrated red from Spain’s Priorat region.
The dish was deeply flavored and distinctive, and it was challenging to choose between the wines. In an extended dissertation, Meyer theorized that the strip steak went best with the Spanish Garnacha while the short rib was built for the aged Italian wine.
With a puzzled look, Andrés said to Meyer, “I didn’t understood where you were going with that.” Meyer and the audience laughed—as the Spanish chef’s accent and grammar have been the recurring butt of jokes at prior years’ showdowns—and Meyer corrected, “Understand!” Andrés smiled and said, “You notice my English is getting better!”
Lomonaco ultimately agreed the dish really required two wines and the audience concurred, but narrowly voted for the Spanish wine.
In the end, it was quite a culinary smackdown: Five men entered the ring and everyone left full and happy.
Organic potato salad with smoked Evans Farm sturgeon, Evans Farm caviar and apple vinaigrette
Andrés' wine: Belondrade y Lurton Rueda 2013 (not yet rated)
Matthews' wine: Cloudy Bay Chardonnay Marlborough 2012 (90 points, $32)
Roasted pumpkin custard with hazelnuts and black truffle
Lagasse's wine: Kistler Chardonnay Sonoma Coast Les Noisetiers 2013 (NYR)
Matthews' wine: Gosset Brut Champagne Grand Millésime 2004 (94, $100)
Beef Duo of dry-aged prime New York strip steak with Italian salsa verde and braised beef short rib, polenta cake, crumbled Maytag blue cheese and pickled mushroom
Meyer's wine: Fontodi Chianti Classico Vigna del Sorbo Riserva 2008 (90, $66)
Matthews' wine: Alvaro Palacios Priorat Finca Dofí 2013 (NYR)