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Monday, April 25, 2011

YTAC's Kiss My Grits Gulf Coast Throwdown

Last Thursday evening I had the extreme pleasure of judging the YTAC (Young Texans Against Cancer) Kiss My Grits Gulf Coast Throwdown in Houston, TX.  Sara Jackson recruited me to come serve as a judge and represent Louisiana on the grits judging panel.  I was joined by Houston Texans's Quarterback Matt Schaub, the Food Editor of the Houston Chronicle, Greg Morago, and Sarah Rufca from Houston's Culture Map. The star-studded panel knew we'd be eating some good food, but nothing could prepare us for the constant flow of gastronomic grits glory that was about to unfold.

Jay Ducote and Matt Schaub prepare to gorge on some grits
My mom also came to the event to support the cause and sample a few grits.  Some of Houston's best chefs were there to try their hand at grits cooking in order win foodie trips to New Orleans and Dallas.  But most of all, the event raised $45,000 to benefit cancer awareness and Houston area cancer centers.  Oh, and Saint Arnold brought some local beer, which is always nice!  Now, on to the food!


Dish number one came from Chef Jeramie Robison of Zimm’s Little Deck and Restaurant Cinq.  Chef Robison featured jalapeƱo grits underneath a seared Gulf grouper filet and a poached quail egg.  I loved the southwestern flavor of the grits that also had cilantro in them.  The crispy exterior of the grouper added a great contrast to the egg and grits as well.  Plus, he served the dish with a smoked lime margarita.  Extra points there!


The first attempt at Shrimp and Grits came from Chef Chris Shepard of Catalan and Underbelly.  The dish featured a pair of cold cocktail style shrimp with a fried ball made out of blue corn grits and pork served over a parsnip puree.  The grit and pork ball ended up being rather similar to a Cajun boudin ball.  It also had a little sweetness from a syrup in it that worked really well.


Chef Randy Evans of Haven presented the judges with a duo of Grits Congee.  Congee is a porridge traditionally made out of rice in many Asian countries.  To step outside the box and use grits to make congee certainly showed a little creativity.  Chef Evans had two types of congee for us to try: Louisiana crawfish and Texas pork.  Each bowl also included a touch of chili oil as well as an assortment of additions that were served on the side including homemade cracklins!  This dish certainly got extra points for being inventive as well as delicious.


Another fascinating dish came from Chef Jamie Zelko of Zelko Bistro.  Chef Zelko used all sorts of local ingredients to create her seemingly simple yet surprisingly complex dish of sausage, grits, and greens.  The sausage had a wonderful flavor and everything on the plate came out very delicious.  At the bottom of the leaf bowl there was also an agave nectar that took everything up even another notch on the taste bud chart.


The second shrimp and grits plate we were served came from Chef Elouise Adams of Ouisie’s Table.  The shrimp were warm and had great flavor after being cooked down in white wine and lemon juice.  I also really liked the mushrooms and other flavors in the grits.  Everything tasted fine and well prepared, but the other judges and I had a hard time finding the creativity in this dish like we found in some of the others.


Speaking of creativity and interesting dishes, Chef Jason Gould of Cyclone Anaya’s and Quench presented us with this masterpiece on a plate.  The dish featured a bacon, herb, and cheese fried grit cake stuffed with braised pork served over fresh arugula and julienned apples that had been tossed in a little apple cider vinegar.  On the side came a little cold corn mustard to add some extra flavor.  The grit cake highlighted the dish while the greens, fruit, and mustard all kept the dish light and refreshing.  This was one of my favorites for sure.


Chef Mark Holley from Pesce took us for another trip around the world with his gnocchi grits and charcuterie plate.  It also featured a bouillabaisse reduction and everything being cooked down in fennel.  The gnocchi style grits brought a great texture that certainly made the dish unique.  The sausage and greens were salty and delicious.  I found that everything on the plate had a consistent salty flavor.  While it tasted good, there was nothing else there to balance out the dish.  Still, bravo to Chef Holley, because this dish was good!


Next up were the Kimchi Grits from Chef Seth Siegel-Gardner of Kata Robata.  Served with some sake and Asahi beer from Japan, this dish was already off to a good start.  The kimchi flavor in the grits left them tasting a little sweet and tart at the same time.  Atop the grits was a pickled lamb wonton and some flowery greens that provided more than just eye appeal.  The dish had superb balance and creativity, and tasted phenomenal.


Chef Randy Rucker of Bootsie’s Heritage Cafe took the biggest risk of the evening by serving his version of breakfast in a cup.  Chef Rucker used instant grits to go along with his scrambled egg mousse, fried honeycomb cow stomach, and maple syrup.  The bowl did have excellent, classic breakfast flavors.  Unfortunately, I felt like the texture of the instant grits wasn't ideal for this dish, especially when paired with the scrambled egg mousse of the same consistency.  The fried tripe, however, tasted amazing!


The final dish of the evening came from Chef Jonathan Jones of Beaver’s.  The dish, in his words, represented Texas on a plate.  His grits were unique in that they were baked in the oven low and slow with mixture of eggs, local sheep's milk feta and all sorts of goodies.  The grits ended up acting almost like a cake.  Chef JJ baked them until a crust formed on the top to provide some extra texture.  In addition to the unique take on grits, the plate also had some Texas-style pork shoulder grillades, mushrooms and pearl onions.  The dish as a whole was every bit as interesting as it was delicious.  The only complaint I had was that the pork didn't quite end up being as tender as I would have liked.  All we had were forks and we we almost needed a knife to cut the grillades.  Still, Chef JJ presented an excellent final dish of the contest, and I knew that the judging would be close!

I know my buddy Alvin Schultz, who writes the blog Eat. Drink. Experience., cast his vote for Chef JJ's baked grits and grillades.  My mom dropped her voting beads for Chef Jason Gould's grit cake.  For me, the top point earner was Chef Siegel-Gardner's Kimchi Grits with 35/40.  Next was a tie between Chef Gould and Chef Evans with 34 points each.  Several others were close with 32 or 33 points.  The top two in audience votes and judges points were announced:

People's Choice:
1. Chef Jason Gould's grit cake over greens with corn mustard
2. Chef Mark Holley's grit gnocchi and charcuterie

Judges results:
1. Chef Seth Siegel-Gardner
2. Tie: Chef Jeramie Robison and Chef Randy Rucker

A huge thanks to all the chefs who participated, all of YTAC board members and volunteers for putting on such a great and well-attended charity event, and especially to Sara Jackson for inviting me to be one of the judges for such an amazing culinary contest for a cause!

The United Way's Jambalaya Jam Jams on October 9th!