Nosh Pit

Mirth boils over at 2-chef showdowns in Sacramento

Restaurant workers and food enthusiasts huddle around the kitchen at Mother on Monday. The vegetarian eatery was hosting its second edition of “86’d,” a chef vs. chef competition.
Restaurant workers and food enthusiasts huddle around the kitchen at Mother on Monday. The vegetarian eatery was hosting its second edition of “86’d,” a chef vs. chef competition.

Free of their sommelier sports coats and kitchen Crocs, some of Sacramento’s key chefs and service personnel huddle around the kitchen at Mother. A large alarm clock is set to buzz in 60 minutes.

The crowd’s collective bellies are full of Japanese curry with brown rice, the night’s “family meal,” plus a variety of beers. But the main entree has yet to be served: a heaping of one-on-one competition.

“Let’s get this started,” said Mike Thiemann, Mother’s co-owner. “The ingredients tonight: Mandarins, lemongrass … and a can of something” (which turned out to be chickpeas).

Then, a five-second countdown and it’s time to see which chef will get “86’d.”

This occasional cooking competition, “86’d,” features two of Sacramento’s top chefs going mano a mano in the kitchen. They’re required to cook dishes based off three mystery ingredients, plus whatever they can source from Mother’s own vegetarian kitchen and pantry. Think of it as the culinary equivalent of two jazz musicians “cutting heads,” or trying to outperform the other in a flurry of improvisation.

It’s Nov. 24, the second installment of “86’d,” and it’s sauté pans instead of saxophones. The night features David Chavez, the newly minted executive chef at The Kitchen, battling Adam Schulze, the much-lauded chef de cuisine at The Waterboy. The judging panel includes two notable fishmongers – Nguyen Pham of Sunh Fish and Passmore Ranch’s Michael Passmore – along with Mother executive chef Matt Masera and Kru’s Billy Ngo, who lost to Ravin Patel of The Selland Group restaurants in the first “86’d” battle Oct. 27.

The competition, modeled after “Knife Fight” on Esquire TV, is held every few weeks on a Monday night – otherwise known as “industry night” in the restaurant biz. It’s a chance for key folks in the local food and beverage world to let off steam by reveling in it, and at a line cook-friendly fee. Admission is $10 and includes a bit of food and drink.

“I’ve got to represent for The Kitchen,” said Jeremy Reed, advanced sommelier for The Kitchen, while clutching a can of Tecate. “And I get yellow curry and Mexican beer with my entry? I’m there.”

Once the two chefs dig into their cooking challenge, it’s clear that “86’d” is closer to a raucous backyard kegger than the Bocuse D’Or.

Someone throws a mandarin over the crowd. Angsty post-punk by The Fall pumps over the sound system. Good-natured bits of smack talk rise above the crowd. Randall Selland watches Chavez scrambling to assemble his dishes, a fennel salad and a spicy mole, and shouts, “Chef, you need help?”

As Schulze whips up his entries – beet salad and cassoulet with vegetarian sausage – the scene is a mosh pit of shop talk and mingling. Masera shows off a fresh bandage on his arm, which covers a nasty burn received via a hot pan of focaccia bread. There’s hugs for Brad Cecchi and calls of, “What are you doing here?” The former sous chef and charcuterie master at Grange took an executive chef job in Cleveland in late 2013, but is now back in Northern California. Cecchi tells everyone he took a sous chef gig at Solbar in Calistoga and is looking for housing.

Also in the “86’d” mix: Brock Macdonald of Block Butcher Bar, Culinerdy Cruzer owner-chef Keith Breedlove and Boulevard Bistro’s Bret Bohlmann.

“‘86’d’ is super cool,” said Thiemann. “It’s not one of the most original ideas we’ve ever had. But we’ve got some talent, and it’s a lot of fun. The value’s there, and you get a beer when you walk through the door. It’s a relaxed environment. It’s really industry-based. It’s not for everybody, and for the most part we’re being purposely difficult so it doesn’t get too popular. Our restaurant is kind of small.”

That means you have to be in the know, or befriend Mother on Facebook, for more information on this fight club of food. The next “86’d,” whenever that may be, will be announced two days before the event takes place. The competing chefs aren’t disclosed until right before it’s time to cook.

But now, the Schulze vs. Chavez verdict is in … and it’s a tie. Fire up the burners, put another 15 minutes on the clock and let’s see what these chefs can do with eggs. Schulze works on a classic omelet, while Chavez goes the pasta route with a pappardelle that’s topped with egg yolk and a small nest of white truffle shavings.

So it all comes down to eggs. The judges deem the battle was won by Schulze, who accepts a gold tasting spoon as a trophy and is showered with a chorus of “Woooos!”

The second “86’d” is in the books, but we feel like the competition’s just heating up. Sacramento chefs, grab a cutting board and put up your dukes.

Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.