This way for durian: Announcing the Key Ingredient Cook-Off

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Lobby at the Peninsula chef Lee Wolens durian custard
  • Julia Thiel
  • Lobby at the Peninsula chef Lee Wolen's durian custard
"I love the Reader. But that column where people cook with yak phlegm? That's terrible. It's gotta go." So said a friendly bartender at the L&L Tavern late last year, unaware that he was talking to a group of Readerites including Julia Thiel, who writes our chef-to-chef challenge, Key Ingredient. We've been running the feature since December 2, 2010, when Grant Achatz kicked things off with kluwak kupas, the first and only ingredient to come from us (more specifically, from food writer Mike Sula—"damn Sula," said Achatz, who'd never heard of the nuts). The chefs themselves have been responsible for issuing the rest of the challenges, and while it's true there have been some ingredients suitable for the witches' pot—duck tongues, rabbit lungs, bamboo worms, sea cucumber—there have also been lots of ordinary foodstuffs, from flour to bananas to confectioners' sugar (Stephanie Izard made a "rustic and badass" steak with the last). Scores of Chicago chefs have participated along the way, and a generous and wildly creative, sometimes foul-mouthed and frequently funny lot they've been. In 2011, Julia and videographer Michael Gebert won a Beard award for the multimedia feature.

Now we're throwing a party: the Key Ingredient Cook-Off, which will bring together 26 Chicago chefs for a challenge based on the series.

Each participant has been assigned one of five past ingredients: durian, millet, celery, dried shrimp, and (you had a feeling it was coming, didn't you?) Malort. They'll offer tasting portions of their dishes, and attendees will vote for the best in each category, with donations on behalf of the winners going to the Healthy Schools Campaign, as will a portion of the proceeds.

Not weird, delicious: NoMi Kitchen chef Ryan LaRoches guinea hen with celery
  • Julia Thiel
  • Not weird at all: NoMi Kitchen chef and cook-off participant Ryan LaRoche's guinea hen with celery and celery root puree

In addition to Ryan LaRoche of NoMi Kitchen, participating chefs include Malort challenger and millet recipient Paula Haney (Hoosier Mama Pie), Paul Virant (Vie, Perennial Virant), David Posey (Blackbird), Phillip Foss (El Ideas), Chris Pandel (the Bristol, Balena), Jared Van Camp (Nellcote, Old Town Social), and Patrick and Mike Sheerin (Trenchermen). Admission also includes a DJ set and complimentary drinks from the likes of Brooklyn Brewery, City Winery, and Tenzing Wine & Spirits, plus (as part of the VIP package) jazz guitar, pre-event bites, and signature cocktails from Scofflaw.

The Key Ingredient Cook-Off is Friday, May 3, from 7 to 10 PM (6 PM start for VIPs) at the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 31st; tickets are $65 ($100 VIP), available here, where you'll also find a complete list of participating chefs and sponsors.

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