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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Louisiana Culinary Institute's Race to Cannes

The Louisiana Culinary Institute's Third Annual Race to Cannes cooking competition presents an opportunity for state's best culinary students to challenge each other for a trip to the Cannes Film Festival.  Their journey to France will provide them with an opportunity to work with world-famous chefs as part of the festival's culinary team.  I had the privilege of judging two of the head-to-head match ups in the second round of the single-elimination bracket.  The ingredients that the chefs had to work with were chicken livers, red lentils, and oyster mushrooms.  Let's see what the chefs created!

Rumaki served with braised lentils and oyster mushroom salad
Chef number one was Bryan Poche.  His colorful dish featured rumaki with braised lentils and an oyster mushroom salad.  Rumaki, for those wondering, is a bite-sized morsel typically consisting of a water chestnut and duck or chicken liver wrapped in bacon and marinated in soy with either ginger or brown sugar.  Bryan's rumaki had excellent texture and flavor.  I would have preferred to have a little more flavor in the salad and in the lentils, but overall this dish had plenty appeal.

Southern fried chicken liver with red lentil and oyster mushroom tomato sauce over pasta shells
Our next dish came from Taylor Johnson.  Taylor took his chicken livers and gave them a nice, crispy southern fry before placing them over some pasta shells.  These were easily my favorite fried livers of the day, but I found the rest of the dish to be a little displaced.  The lentils were hardly noticeable and plate could have used more sauce.  The oyster mushrooms were there, but they didn't add much to the dish and kind of got lost as well.  In the end, I loved the livers, but the lentils and mushrooms didn't get their share of the love.

The other judges seemed to agree with me.  While the scoring was extremely close, Bryan Poche moved on to the third round of the Race to Cannes!  I think one thing that set him apart was that he happened to be the only competitor to not deep fry his livers.  Way to do something different, Bryan!

Pan-fried chicken livers with red lentils and oyster mushrooms
The next match up began with a spectacular dish from Jeremy Campbell.  His fried livers sat on top of a bed of red lentils cooked to a point where they still retained a little texture.  He added a veal demi-glace and the cooked down oyster mushrooms to bring it all together.  I didn't want to stop eating the lentils and demi-glace at the bottom of the dish.  The livers left a little to be desired as they had lost some of their crispiness, but everything else worked so well that I ate every bit of my food.

Southern style fried chicken livers with pepper jelly sauce served with sauteed red lentils and smoked oyster mushrooms
The final plate of the evening came from Logan Alfred.  Logan delivered more delicious food, though his plate could have been a little less monotone.  Still, his smoked oyster mushrooms were absolutely my favorite mushrooms of the day.  They had just the right amount of hickory smoke flavor to make me thing I was at a KCBS competition.  Additionally, Logan used some panko bread crumbs on his fried livers and topped them off with a pepper jelly sauce.  Unfortunately, the lentils were a little bland, especially compared to flavors from the mushrooms and livers.

Both of these dishes were really amazing and it was hard to see either of them lose.  I had one point separating the two dishes.  The other judges clearly scored them fairly evenly as well.  Ultimately, the judges and I agreed that the winner was Jeremy Campbell's dish.  I think that veal demi-glace with the lentils is what really set him over the top.

I'll be excited to see how Bryan and Jeremy do moving forward in the competition.  My hat off to all of the competitors as well as everybody at the Louisiana Culinary Institute for putting on this great culinary challenge.  I can only hope to be back to judge (and eat) more!