Wine icons dominate the stage at the New York Wine Experience, but for one vibrant hour, four culinary stars take over for the annual Chefs’ Challenge. This year, the fan-favorite face-off brought back together veteran competitors Emeril Lagasse and José Andrés and two recent additions: Ti Martin, co-owner of Commander's Palace in New Orleans, and Mario Carbone, whose New York–based Major Food Group earned its first Grand Award in 2019 for the Pool.
Each of these powerhouse personalities presents a dish, paired with two wines: One selected by a different chef, and one by Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews. It’s up to the audience to determine their favorite.
This year’s wines were particularly diverse. “They’re quite distinctive and quite—kind of crazy almost,” Matthews said, before Martin introduced her dish: Louisiana jumbo lump crab and sea urchin ravigote. The red specks sprinkled on top were pepper-and-vinegar pulp, a byproduct of beloved Louisiana condiment Crystal Hot Sauce.
The first pairing was an Italian white, Antinori Vermentino Bolgheri Tenuta Guado al Tasso 2018 (89 points, $25) from Carbone, who prefaced his pick with a playful disclaimer. “I’d like to repeat that I chose the wine, not my world-renowned wine director John Slover,” he said with detectable sarcasm, launching into an elaborate description of the herb- and salt-tinged maritime wine’s harmonious marriage with the briny dish.
“This is cheating! This is cheating!” Andrés proclaimed.
Matthews tempered the clash by presenting his pick, Bodegas La Cana Albariño Rías Baixas La Caña Navia 2016 (92, $32), the first of his four wines from Spain. Martin thought the Albariño’s ripe, tropical fruit better stood up to the peppery pulp, edging out the Vermentino. The crowd also deemed Matthews the champion in a close-call vote.
Next was Andrés’ smoked salmon with salmon roe and huevo hilado, thin, long strands of egg yolk made in a traditional Spanish technique.
“Now we’re getting a little wild and wooly with the wine matches,” Matthews said, introducing Martin’s Maison Champy Volnay Clos de la Chapelle 2009 with some skepticism that a red could hold up against the salty, fishy dish.
“This is just an extraordinary wine,” Martin said of the single-vineyard Pinot Noir. “It was poured from magnum—just sayin’,” she flaunted. “It’s a beautiful, classic Burgundy,” agreed Matthews. Martin noted a hint of tomato jam as well as black cherry; Carbone compared it (favorably) to drinking a Dr. Brown’s soda, a common match-up with appetizings like smoked salmon. Matthews’ bright white wine, Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta Viura Rioja Capellanía 2014 (90, $30), held its own in the audience vote, but Martin’s took the edge.
Then came Lagasse’s sformato, a flavor-packed custard with parmesan, topped with pickled mushrooms, marinated shrimp and ‘nduja breadcrumbs. Andrés chose a Lebanese wine, Chateau Musar Bekaa Valley Blanc 2008, for its oxidative nature to complement the savory cheese. It drank similarly to a red due to its structure and weight, while Matthews’ red pick, Codorníu Conca de Barberà Abadia de Poblet La Font Voltada 2015 (91, $55), from the obscure Trepat grape, drank similarly to a white, with bright fresh fruits and vibrance. Lagasse and Carbone preferred Andrés’ pick, which they said had both the minerality to match the seafood and the richness to match the parmesan, as did Martin, who declared it “one of the best pairings I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“What we’re trying to tell you, Tom, is good try,” Andrés quipped, a call confirmed by the audience vote. Even Matthews couldn’t contest. “When it’s good, it’s good,” he admitted.
For the final match-up, Carbone was faced with defending his deceivingly humble-looking meatball of pork and veal, braised in veal stock and topped with parsley, lemon zest and garlic.
Lagasse chose Pride Syrah Sonoma County 2017, which had juicy berry fruit with as much freshness as the zingy garnish. Matthews selected Bodegas Emilio Moro Tempranillo Ribera del Duero Malleolus de Sanchomartin 2011 (94, $180), “kind of a mouthful, but the wine is a mouthful.” Carbone voted for the California wine, pointing out a roundness that tamed the raw-garlic finish. The decision was tougher for Martin. “I’m a super opinionated girl, but this is a tie for me.”
Before a winner could be crowned, Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken strode to the stage to play off the continuous teasing of Carbone. “Here’s your assignment for next year,” he ordered. “Four variations of the meatball.”
Once the roaring laughter subsided, Matthews set it to a vote. His Spanish pick just barely edged out Lagasse’s Syrah. Andrés, ever the peacemaker, solicited one more vote for both wines with Carbone’s dish, and at last, the entire room was in agreement.
The Wine and Food Matches
Ti Martin, Commander’s Palace, New Orleans
Louisiana Jumbo Lump Crab and Sea Urchin Ravigote
Mario’s wine: Antinori Vermentino Bolgheri Tenuta Guado al Tasso 2018 (89, $25)
Tom’s wine: Bodegas La Cana Albariño Rías Baixas La Caña Navia 2016 (92, $32)
José Andrés, ThinkFood Group, Washington, D.C.
Russ and Daughters Smoked Salmon with Huevo Hilado and Salmon Roe
Ti’s wine: Maison Champy Volnay Clos de la Chapelle 2009 (Not yet rated)
Tom’s wine: Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta Viura Rioja Capellanía 2014 (90, $30)
Emeril Lagasse, Emeril’s, New Orleans
Parmesan Sformato, Louisiana–Mushroom Shrimp Antipasti, ‘Nduja Breadcrumbs
José’s wine: Chateau Musar Bekaa Valley Blanc 2008 (Not yet rated)
Tom’s wine: Codorníu Conca de Barberà Abadia de Poblet La Font Voltada 2015 (91, $55)
Mario Carbone, Major Food Group, NYC
Emeril’s wine: Pride Syrah Sonoma County 2017 (Not yet rated)
Tom’s wine: Bodegas Emilio Moro Tempranillo Ribera del Duero Malleolus de Sanchomartin 2011 (94, $180)