Culinary Fight Club – Chicago’s 2017 Pork Challenge
By Josephine Layug
Have you ever dreamt of being on Chopped? Well, that dream almost came true for me. I attended Culinary Fight Club’s Pork Challenge. Five contestants, ranging from home cooks to executive chefs competed head to head creating beautiful and taste dishes using pork. The monthly chef fight was hosted at Chop Shop and 1st Ward. This awesome restaurant and bar is two floors, a deck and event room which includes a stage. Located steps from the Damen Blue Line it’s a must visit for some tasty bites.
The rules are simple, 45 seconds in the pantry, 60 minutes to cook, one dish to wow the judges and take home the crown. The chefs are allowed to bring 3 ingredients from their own kitchens to help craft the perfect dish. Cheferee, Anthony Martorina, starts the clock and the chefs are off. Although it’s common TV practice, a pantry race is so much more exciting in person.
As the 60 minutes dwindled I made my rounds. The competitor’s were Chef Lance Avery of Big Fork Brands, Matthew Morin from Cruz Blanca, Chef Tony Balestreri of Kimski, Chef Ross Johnson of Carriage Greens Country Club, and Chef George Phelps from Chili Rocks.
Chef Avery’s station held a pot of noodles, mushrooms, bacon, onions, garlic and pork belly. Mr. Morin, a first time competitor, worked with carrots, leeks, green apples, garlic, lime, blood orange and pork belly. Chef Balestreri had onion, garlic, maple syrup, wanton wrappers, and a variety of sauces set to accompany his pork trifecta. Yes, a trifecta, ground, belly and chops. Upon sighting a makeshift smoker my excitement level soared. Clearly we were in for something delicious.
Chef Johnson was the only contestant to work with pork butt, a great choice. In addition, the table sported avocado, onion, artichoke, garlic, egg roll wrappers, and a variety of spices. Obviously there were some egg rolls coming my way. Chef Phelps had a spread of sweet potatoes, provolone cheese, carrots, apples, bacon, brown sugar, pork belly and ChiliRocks own Apple-Peno Blaze Glaze.
While the time ticked by and the teams scrambled I grabbed a cocktail. I also nabbed a few Minnelli meatballs provided by Chop Shop. Being at a culinary competition is a whole new experience every time. The sights, sounds, techniques and flavors are all around you, television doesn’t compare. The only downside is the urge to reach onto a team’s station and start tasting freely.
At the 45 minute mark Chef Johnson finished his dish and sent it off for judgement. Pork Stuffed Egg Roll and Guacamole, a delicious combination but it was missing something to take it over the edge. Chef Phelps followed with Candied Pork Belly, Mashed Sweet Potatoes, Sautéed Carrots and Apple Slaw…the best pork belly ever!
Chef Avery served up a bowl of Udon Noodles and Pork Belly in Mushroom Broth. The topping was a mini-basket waved from Bacon, quite inventive. The crispy pork belly was perfectly cooked and the noodles were very good. All together these ingredients created a perfect mix of texture and flavor.
Matthew Morin brought forth Apple-Brined Pork Belly with Corn Bread Waffles, Mashed Carrots and a Blood Orange Sauce. I’ve never thought of a corn-bread waffle but it was good. With a few tweaks this would make a dynamite brunch dish! Chef Balestreri presented a Maple-Smoked Pork Chop and Pork Dumplings. The execution was perfect, flavor and texture ripped through every bite.
Chef Lance Avery was crowned king of the CFC Pork Challenge, winning by just two points. This was a well fought battle all around. Chef George Phelps came in second place. The People’s Choice Award went to Chef Tony Balestreri.
At the end of the day everyone who competes or attends a CFC event is winning. Food, drinks, and great entertainment sets the stage for fighting hunger. That’s right 20% of the proceeds go to Fight2Feed, a charity that helps feed those in need. Reinhart Foodservice donates all the food for the competitions, allowing Culinary Fight Club to push the boundaries of food and provide for the less-fortunate. Head out to the next Culinary Fight Club event and support this great cause.
Chop Shop & 1st Ward is open at 11am daily and closes at midnight Mondays through Thursdays, 2am on Fridays, 3 am on Saturdays and 10pm on Sundays. They host daily drink specials and a variety of food specials throughout the week including a $6 meatball sub from 11am to 8pm on Mondays. Chop Shop also has a deli counter where you can grab some great sandwiches or other goodies on the go.