In an annual ritual at the New York Wine Experience, four heavyweight chefs and restaurateurs gather for a wine-and-food-pairing smackdown, and this year’s edition of the Chefs’ Challenge was as raucous as ever.
Each chef presents a dish, and Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews and another chef face off via dueling wine pairings. The audience members, who taste it all, determine each segment’s winner.
This year’s panel included old hands Emeril Lagasse and José Andrés, and last year’s rookie, Mario Carbone. The newcomer was Ti Martin, co-owner of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. “It’s not only a first for Ti, it’s a first for us,” Matthews acknowledged. “It’s the first time a woman has appeared on this chefs’ panel.” The crowd erupted in applause. “I don’t know what a nice girl like me is doing at a table like this,” Martin quipped, as she surveyed her competitors.
The pairing portion began with Andrés’ homage to the late chef Joël Robuchon: a rich cauliflower cream with truffle gelatin, pickled cauliflower, caviar and hazelnut oil. It drew a white Burgundy from Lagasse, the Joseph Drouhin Chassagne-Montrachet Embazées 2015 (94 points, $120). He explained that as a young cook in the 1980s, he tasted Robuchön’s original dish. “To me, it spoke French,” he said. “I chose this wine for its complexity, its richness, the buttery notes.”
Matthews went with Veuve Clicquot, a producer beloved by Robuchon. “There’s a kind of sentimental connection,” he said, adding that the darker, richer flavors of the Brut Champagne La Grande Dame 2008 (95, $150), which is 95 percent Pinot Noir, accentuated the dish’s truffle element, “and the bubbles refresh the unctuousness of the terrine.”
When pressed for a decision, Carbone took a jab at Matthews for having teased him about his rookie panel performance: “I generally like to vote against you, just for spite.” Matthews returned fire: “Everybody gets better the second year.” But the audience agreed that Lagasse’s richer wine paired best.
Next up was Martin’s dish. “Well, I didn’t cook the damn thing!” she protested, crediting Commander’s Palace executive chef Tory McPhail. The cayenne-smoked redfish salad, with herbsaint-infused crabmeat ravigote, citrus, fennel, celery root and toasted pecans inspired Andrés to select a Txakoli, a lightly effervescent, briny white with soaring acidity from Spain’s Basque region. The variety is a go-to for him with seafood, and he felt the Bodegas Itsas-Mendi Bizkaiko Txakolina 7 2015 complemented the dish’s spicy quality.
“2018 has definitely been the year of the rosé,” noted Matthews, who chose the Domaines Ott Bandol Rosé Château Romassan 2017, which stars Mourvèdre, “a gutsy grape that’s got a little more power than most rosés.”
“Both wines are really very close,” Lagasse said, “but I have to say that I would choose José’s wine just because I’m getting the overtones from the smoke much better than [I am with] the Bandol. And for me, that’s the story.”
“Yeah, I’m just over rosé,” Carbone added.
Matthews observed that both wines worked, albeit differently: The Txakoli’s acidity cut through the dish, while the rosé’s roundness supported it. After surveying the audience, he handed the win to Andrés, though he called it a close vote. (Andrés protested this characterization.)
Next, Carbone served a showstopper: a "humble" goose and pork "country" terrine inlaid with Madeira-marinated foie gras, figs and olives, plus fresh fruit, mostarda and pickled mustard seeds. Martin chose a Cabernet Franc–based Loire red, Catherine & Pierre Breton’s Bourgueil Trinch! 2016, while Matthews went with the Merlot-dominant Clos Fourtet St.-Emilion 2015 (96, $105).
To devise the match, Martin had consulted McPhail and Dan Davis, whose wine list at Commander’s Palace holds Wine Spectator’s Grand Award. “You got a lot going on here, dude,” she said to Carbone, “but the olives were standing out for me, and that’s how we got to the Cab Franc. … We got this rustic thing going on.” Matthews agreed that the complex mix of big flavors presented a pairing challenge. “When I am in doubt, I go for red Bordeaux, because I think those wines are classic, they’re timeless, they’re meant for food.”
“This was a humble dish, so how much was your wine, Tom?” Martin retorted.
“Nothing is too good for my people!” he protested.
Carbone voted for Martin as a way of voting against Matthews, he said. But for Lagasse, the fig element in the dish pointed to the dark-fruit finish of the St.-Emilion. The audience agreed, and Matthews took the round.
Andrés was indignant: “The one time they bring a woman on the panel and you cannot vote for her?” he reprimanded the audience.
Last up was Lagasse’s daube glacé, a chilled terrine of oxtail and short rib served with a cracker, apple-horseradish jam, microgreens and mustard-seed vinaigrette. He gave a shout-out to Emeril’s Homebase director of culinary development David Slater and the rest of the team for the dish.
Carbone brought a Mendocino Syrah while Matthews headed again to France, this time to Beaujolais. Carbone said his wine director, John Slover, had noted that the juicy raspberry fruit and smooth tannins of Copaín’s Syrah Yorkville Highlands Tous Ensemble 2015 made it food-friendly.
Matthews recommended the combination of fruit and structure in his pick, Louis Jadot’s Moulin-à-Vent Château des Jacques La Roche 2015 (92, $43). “The acidity is hanging in there with everything going on in the daube glacé,” Martin said, adding with a mischievous smile, “It is towards the end of the panel, so I gotta go with Tom one time.” The audience was with her, and Matthews won the face-off.
Andrés imparted a note of reassurance to those who had voted against Carbone’s pick, the lone U.S. wine of the bunch: “Doesn’t mean you are less American.” The seminar closed with Andrés leading the room in a chant of “We love wine! We love wine!”
The Wine and Food Matches
José Andrés, ThinkFoodGroup, Washington, D.C.
Cauliflower Cream with Truffle and Caviar (donated by Sterling Caviar)
Lagasse’s wine: Joseph Drouhin Chassagne-Montrachet Embazées 2015 (94 points, $120)
Matthews’ wine: Veuve Clicquot Brut Champagne La Grande Dame 2008 (95, $150)
Ti Martin, with chef Tory MacPhail, Commander’s Palace, New Orleans
Cayenne-Smoked Redfish Salad
Andrés’ wine: Bodegas Itsas-Mendi Bizkaiko Txakolina 7 2015 (Not Yet Rated)
Matthews’ wine: Domaines Ott Bandol Rosé Château Romassan 2017 (NYR)
Mario Carbone, the Grill, New York
Country Terrine with Foie Gras
Martin’s wine: Catherine & Pierre Breton Bourgueil Trinch! 2016 (NYR)
Matthews’ wine: Clos Fourtet St.-Emilion 2015 (96, $105)
Emeril Lagasse, Emeril's, New Orleans
Daube Glacé with Apple-Horseradish Salad
Carbone’s wine: Copaín Syrah Yorkville Highlands Tous Ensemble 2015 (NYR)
Matthews’ wine: Louis Jadot Moulin-à-Vent Château des Jacques La Roche 2015 (92, $43)