A room full of the youngest and most talented chefs running Philadelphia’s hottest kitchens and a scrumptious beer nearly steals the show.
The diverse crowd of the usuals, Ommegang fans and maybe a few friend tag-alongs amassed at World Cafe Live for the sold out event. Eager bodies pushed past each other, all with the same intention of getting up close and personal with fine cuisine and Ommegang beers. For a brewery that is so astute at crafting beers into destined pairing beverages, it’s no wonder the venue overflowed with food and beer devotees on July 10.
Even with the lights drawn, I could easily identify a distinct gravitational force taking over the crowd. An initial thought was to strain my already damaged four eyes and peer through the huddled group to identify which chef had created such a large gathering so early in the competition. Was it Jason Cichonski of Ela or Joe Cicala of Le Virtu?
Dismissing the curiosity, I hopped on board with the others and quickly realized what all the fuss was about. A Limited Edition Ommegang beer, the Biere d’Hougoumont, was in full stock. Almost like magic, the service personnel kept up with our drinking demands, pouring sampling glass after sampling glass of the rare gem. It was sweeter than I expected but dry enough in the finish to allow for maximum consumption. I was fully aware that Ommegang didn’t formulate the Hop Chef event hoping I’d hang around sipping the magnificent oak and maple aged beer all night but it wouldn’t have been the worst decision.
With respect to Brewery Ommegang and their mission to pair great food with great beer, I tore from the makeshift bar and chomped my way through the original offerings, two from each chef, with the exception of Jason Cichonski’s diver scallops. Whether it was popular demand or miscalculation, his Hennepin hinted item ran out within the first hour. After working my Sherlock Holmes skills during conversation with fellow food mongrels, I concluded my tastebuds were at a scallop with corn, mushrooms and crunchy mustard loss for not heading to his table first. The regret that I felt might have deepened had he taken home the title.
The mood was pleasantly light hearted but in an uneasy way. A majority of the chefs kept their cool while on stage, acting as if leaving World Cafe Life as Philadelphia’s Hop Chef was no big deal. Jokes were thrown around about marital status and quirky questions were asked by the evening’s commentator to keep things alive as the judges deliberated.
My first taste came from Joe Cicala of Le Virtu. One bite of his Witte-braised “Testina” filled ravioli with crushed pistachios and Pecorino cheese left me confused. I thought to myself, “isn’t this a competition because I don’t know how anything can taste better than that?” Although Joe didn’t walk away with a dangling medal, the entree and his Three Philosophers flourless chocolate cake dessert deserved a nod or two in my book.
Scott Schroeder was enjoying the event more than anyone. The Executive Chef at South Philadelphia Tap Room held nothing back when put on the spot to share his thoughts about fellow contestants. Keeping his usual classy cool, he admitted to loving Le Virtu but at the same time feeling threatened by Joe Cicala’s amazing dishes, which contribute to his manly figure. A rough tap of the belly followed this comment.
This jolly attitude continued even after his dishes were awarded People’s Choice for the evening. Chef Schroeder stepped forward and slyly admitted “I was People’s Choice before this event even started.” The crowd dug his laid back style and his jokes were always received with laughter and applause. The main dish he served, however, was no joke. Craft beer experimentation took whole new meaning with his BPA pairing of line-caught Bluefin tuna crudo, crispy pancetta and BPA-soaked melon. A dish like that is meant to be savored as a special treat and I had no problem fulfilling my end of the bargain.
Coming from a not-so-big sea urchin fan, Nicholas Elmi’s Witte paired dish of hamachi and sea urchin with wheatgrass, citrus and coriander had my taste buds in a tight knot. I knew the Executive Chef of Rittenhouse Tavern had mastered the components of his complex offering but my stubborn consumer preferences told me otherwise. The freshness and lingering smoky taste of the hamachi fought to win me over for his sea urchin friend and it almost worked. Had it not been for Elmi’s incredible Three Philosopher’s dessert of cheese and cherry pie with pistachio and lardo, the relentless hamachi might have changed my eating habits right then and there.
Chef Elmi wasn’t the only one serving a dessert that stole the show. Jonathan Cichon of Lacroix created a cherry beignet using Ommegang’s Three Philosophers. The sweet fritters’ lives lasted but only a few seconds as the Chef and his crew prepared them in a traditional fashion and allowed guests to devour the morsels nearly right out of the fryer, but only after a sprinkling of powdered sugar. His main dish, a BPA blue crab and watermelon, was put on the back burner only because his beignets truly captured the essence of Ommegang’s Hop Chef competition. They gave off a perfectly subtle hint of beer, (one that I had been searching for in a dish all night) without compromising the traditional French delight. Unfortunately for Chef Elmi, the panel of judges who ranged from Arthur Etchells (Foobooz), Drew Lazor (Food Writer), and Mat Falco (Philly Beer Scene magazine), to Jen Carroll (Top Chef) and Emilio Mignucci (Di Bruno Bros.), did not seem to agree with my “Ommegang essence” theory.
All hard feelings aside, the judges and I were on the same page when it came to George Sabatino’s offerings. A young Executive Chef from Stateside, it was tough to determine if the Chef was nervous in keeping to himself or just extremely humble. He moved swiftly behind his table, only breaking concentration to meet eyes with the guests or address his culinary crew. Specializing in American style small plates at the locally sourced restaurant, Sabatino may have had a leg up on the competition before it even began.
Prematurely hearing a group discuss his cuisine forced my expectations higher. I bit into the Abbey Ale lettuce wrap dish of smoked beef cheek, watermelon rind pickle and beer-boiled peanuts but teeth were barely necessary. The tender meat melted between the crisp lettuce by just the warmth of my mouth and the watermelon lightened it all up. A flavorful specimen indeed, I snagged a second helping before diving into the one of a kind dessert.
Sabatino let Pastry Chef Robert Toland take center stage to explain their clever culinary technique symbolic of the beer’s carbonation. The clever secret to this funky Three Philosophers with head to tail cherries? Pop rocks.
Sabatino pleased the judges on various levels including storytelling and experimental techniques used to make the Abbey Ale prominent in the dish. He maxed out the five notable criteria and walked away with the official title of Ommegang Philly’s Hop Chef and with a celebratory beer shower-soaked shirt, courtesy of his friendly competitors.
Not to downsize his performance by any means, but it only served as a tiny stepping stone in Ommegang’s overall “Great Beer Deserves Great Food” program. The Philly event was a final of many chef cook-offs across the U.S., culminating in a Grand Hop Chef cook-off at Ommegang’s “Belgium Comes to Cooperstown” festival on August 4. Sabatino will represent Philadelphia in the grand competition so if you’re planning to attend, be prepared for a sensory overload. More importantly, remember to head straight to the bar and get your lips on the Biere d’Hougoumont. With so many talented chefs in one location, the Limited Edition beer shouldn’t be so distracting that it sabotages the competition, but you never know.
Photography credited to Amy Strauss.