There were rows and rows of food and booze at the Dallas Observer's Iron Fork event at Fair Park's Centennial Hall last night, but the chef competition was easily the best part, aside from drunkenly taking ridiculous photos in the photo booth.
This year, two-year reigning champ Matt McCallister of FT33 took on Casa Rubia's Omar Flores. With the assistance of Kent Rathbun, the evening's gracious host, McCallister and Flores unveiled this year's secret ingredient: peppers. There were bell peppers, piquillo peppers, jalapenos, and just about every other kind of pepper that you could imagine. The chefs quickly grabbed their bounty and headed back to their respective stations to slog it out in the 30-minute Iron Chef-style throwdown.
McCallister seemed calm and collected as he planned his dish, which would feature two of the housemade ingredients that the competitors were allowed to bring to the Iron Fork kitchen. McCallister's ingredients, of course, were crazy as hell -- a "funky white boy Asian sauce," and an artichoke condiment made with smoked schmaltz. Flores brought Thai curry sauce, but seemed to rely mostly on the ingredients from the Whole Foods-provided pantry to make the two dishes he would present to the judges.
All seemed to be going well until McCallister, who planned to aerate a coddled-egg Hollandaise sauce, realized the fluffy foam that was supposed to come out of the whipped cream charger was actually a runny liquid. McCallister fiddled with the Hollandaise for a significant chunk of his time, even saying to Rathbun that he was "pretty pissed about that Hollandaise bullshit" as he tried to clear out the grains of sea salt that were clogging the nozzle of the charger. McCallister admitted that he'd probably gotten the sauce too hot to aerate properly, which is incredibly ironic considering that he'd chosen to aerate it as a sort of cheat, a way to keep the notoriously finicky sauce from breaking.
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Flores, on the other hand, was quietly working his ass off. As he scaled red snapper, poured arborio rice, and made ricotta gnocchi, he seemed remarkably composed for a guy that has never competed in the Iron Fork competition before. He ended up serving a Thai-inspired dish with curry, coconut milk, rice, jalapeno and red snapper alongside his separate dish with the gnocchi. At one point, the judges asked Flores the difference between gnudi and gnocchi, and he flawlessly answered without hesitation. Apparently, the difference is the addition of a little semolina flour. Who knew?
In the end, Matt McCallister ended up presenting only one dish to the judges, which, if you've ever watched Chopped or Top Chef, you know made winning almost impossible. Still, if anyone could do it, it would be McCallister. Ultimately, though, Flores came out on top, and McCallister handed over the Iron Fork trophy that he's had for the last two years once the judges had announced their decision.
According to Flores, he didn't come to Iron Fork thinking that he would come away with the win. "I just wanted to cook the best dish that I could under those constraints," he said just moments after hoisting that massive fork trophy over his head, "but Matt is a really great chef and I knew that it would be a challenge to beat him. When asked whether or not he did a mental fist-pump once McCallister's Hollandaise was ruined, he said, "nah." "I was kind of in the zone and trying to be Zen," said Flores, "so I actually didn't even really notice. I needed to get those dishes done." And that he did -- Flores finished plating his dishes with more than four minutes to spare.
McCallister tried to make it work up until the two-minute mark, but ultimately decided that he wouldn't have enough time to finish the dishes. Both were ready for judging before the 30 minutes on the timer had wound down, which makes us think that maybe next year we should try giving them just 15 minutes to crank out their two dishes and see what happens.