Have you ever wondered what kind of magic Jean Marie Lacroix could work on matzah ball soup, or how Guillermo Pernot would translate hummus kawarma, the classic Israeli dish of puréed chickpeas and crispy lamb neck?
Evidently, you’re not alone. Nearly 300 people turned out last week to see the two James Beard Award-winners (the culinary Oscars) and four other highly regarded area chefs battle in the first annual Bubby’s Cook-Off, which was held at Vie on North Broad Street.
A fundraiser for Friendship Circle, the nonprofit organization that matches up special needs children with teenage mentor/partners, the event was the brainchild of Rabbi Yehuda Shemtov of Chabad Lubavitch of Bucks County.
The Jan. 23 event, which pitted the chefs against one another to see who could create the best kosher dish for a panel of celebrity judges, “is exactly what we wanted to do — something different” from the usual event, says Shemtov. He came up with the idea during a meeting with event co-chair Joe Weiss (along with his wife, Sharon Pinkenson of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, and Joe Sasso), the chairman of Electronic Ink. “I saw a kosher-style menu in his office and I asked him about it,” Shemtov recalled. “I suddenly realized that kosher food was becoming chic, even trendy.”
And since there is no kosher cuisine trendier at the moment than what is being served at Citron and Rose in Merion Station, Shemtov’s next move was to make the restaurant a partner in the event, which proved to be crucial when it came time for the chefs to start cooking.
Other than Citron and Rose’s executive chef, Yehuda Sichel, none of the other participants — including Jean-Marie Lacroix, executive chef of Brulée Catering; Guillermo Pernot, executive chef/partner of Cuba Libre restaurants in Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Orlando and Washington, D.C.; Mike Deganis, executive chef of Alla Spina; Shane Cash, executive chef of Rat’s Restaurant at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, N.J.; and Jayson Grossberg, the executive chef at Cescaphe Event Group, which owns Vie — had kosher cooking facilities.
Not only did Sichel gladly host his competitors in Citron and Rose’s basement kitchen for the two days leading up to the event — he was just as open with advice. “I gave out some pointers to the guys,” he said, “especially in regards to the salt content of their recipes, since kosher meats are already salted.”
And since Sichel was also the only chef with established connections to the high-end kosher food purveyors everyone wanted to use, he wound up doing all of the ordering for the other chefs as well.
He swears that he was never tempted to engage in even a little bit of gamesmanship by slightly changing anyone’s order, although he did allow that he altered his own recipe once he saw the other chefs’ ingredient lists.
“I was going to do lamb originally, but switched to beef after I saw two chefs using lamb,” he said, citing Degranis, who used slow-cooked lamb shoulder to go with red onion jam, hot sauce & radish in a Boston lettuce cup, and Pernot, who used sous vide-cooked lamb neck for his hummus kawarma with lemony sauce. Sichel instead opted to make a miniature beef goulash knish with lamb belly vinaigrette-dressed frisée.
Cash also used beef in his dish, a red wine-braised brisket with sweet potato puree, pickled pearl onions, tiny tzimmes and a spiced tuile.
Lacroix decided to channel the love of soup instilled in him by his grandmère in France. “She loved making soup, any soup, as long as it was fresh and straight from the garden,” he recalled. He took what he affectionately referred to as “a 2,000-year-old recipe” for matzah ball soup and transformed it into Gold Leaf potato soup with chicken matzah quenelle, black Perigord truffles and leeks.
Grossberg was the only one of the group to venture into the sea — his entry was a slow-cooked salmon with pickled beets, parsley and orange — not because his bubby made him something like it when he was a child, though. “My bubby made nice Jell-O — that’s what she called it,” he said with a laugh. “It was just the nastiest, skin-covered Jell-O, and it had peeled grapes.”
Judging by the lines at his table, and the sated smiles on the faces of judges like chef/TV host and cookbook author Hope Cohen; restaurateur Audrey Claire Taichman; and Nancy Glass, CEO of her eponymous production company, it was no surprise when Pernot was announced as the winner of the event.
“I love the Mediterranean style of cooking,” Pernot said. “People were expecting brisket or matzah ball soup — I wanted to get completely away from that, to learn and try something different.” When asked if the dish would find its way onto Cuba Libre’s menu in some form, Pernot hedged, although he was sure to mention that Cuba Libre does have hummus on the menu — Jewbano-style, of course, made out of black beans and served with malanga chips instead of pita. l
The Exponent’s The Bubbi Project blogger Stephanie Singer contributed to this report. See her take on the event here .