For 85 episodes since late 2010, the Chicago Reader's James Beard Foundation Award-winning series Key Ingredient has thrown one Chicago chef after another a curveball in the form of a strange ingredient picked by one of their colleagues, with the challenge to make something tasty out of it. A crowd of around 300 people came out Friday night for the Reader's Cook Off event, in which 25 chefs (almost all past participants) whipped up exotic things using five iconic previous Key Ingredients the famously stinky Asian fruit durian, another common Asian ingredient, dried shrimp, Chicago cult liquor Malort, birdseed-more-than-human-food millet, and... celery (some of the best episodes have challenged chefs to do something new with something prosaic like that). Here's our slideshow of the event, which benefited Healthy Schools Campaign, including many of the best bites.
The setting was the spectacular loft at the top of the Bridgeport Arts Center, the onetime Spiegel Catalog Warehouse.
Specialty cocktails were from The Scofflaw, a favorite haunt of Reader food writers.
The first group of chefs straight off the elevator were given durian as their challenge ingredient. Ryan LaRoche of NoMI Kitchen towers over the prickly fruit. (In his episode, LaRoche had another of tonight's challenges, celery.)
NoMi Kitchen's Meg Galus grates lime over her durian custard to mellow it with citrus highlights— a solution a couple of those given durian utilized.
Duncan Biddulph of Rootstock, relieved to not be using cod milt, made a kind of pad thai over durian custard— "This is like nothing we serve at Rootstock"— topped with fried anchovies which came from a tub marked, ghetto-style, "Chovy."
Kimchi wasn't a challenge ingredient but one that turned up with surprising frequency. Ray Stanis (Nellcôte), who recently faced off with mochi, and Jared Van Camp, who represented Old Town Social in one of the earliest Key Ingredients, presented their durian dish with a pair of shooters (liquor and kimchi-juice) which you were supposed to knock back first.
Abe Conlon of Fat Rice, who recently tackled pig uterus, was the only one who worked all five challenge ingredients into his dish, using the durian to make a fake cheese epoisse-style with a Malort-and-dried-shrimp-washed "rind," accompanied by millet bread and a salad including celery. The "cheese" was powerfully pungent, but mellowed by the salad.
Runner-up in the use of ingredients was John Asbaty of Panozzo's Italian Market, who used all but the Malort (and had one of the prettiest dishes, plated on nasturtium). The pork and tripe-based sausage on top is the same one seen in his episode, which is the current one at the Reader site.
Carlos Gaytan of Mexique actually had dried shrimp as his ingredient, and brought back his dried shrimp fritters from the episode.
Hoosier Mama, who were not forced to work with millet again, had one of the most charming stands. We're not sure what the combination of tractors and bamboo dim sum baskets meant, but it had something to do with their dish...
...which was a chawanmushi topped with dried shrimp, kimchi and popcorn, not exactly what you associate with Hoosier Mama.
There wasn't a prize for most luxurious bite, but it would have gone to Greg Biggers (Cafe des Architectes) for thinking what dried shrimp needed was a big hunk of Alaskan king crab. It went on a shrimp cracker with spicy shrimp mayo and dried shrimp togarashi (seasoning).
Justin White of Smallbar (who tackled one of the funniest ingredients on camera, ostrich egg), was the first of the chefs we encountered to be given Malort, which he used in a rhubarb upside down cake with Malort cream. Of course.
Matt Troost of Three Aces (whose episode's ingredient was South American dende oil) made what might have been Chicago dining's ultimate dish of all time: Malort Face, combining the famous cult hooch with a Girl & The Goat-style pig face testa.
Ready for your closeup, Malort Face.
That this was an experienced Chicago dining crowd was proven by the fact that probably the longest line was for, not a famous 4-star chef, but Barry Sorkin of Smoque, who dished up an utterly satisfying plate of smoked lamb with Malort-blueberry BBQ sauce and Malort-marinated fried onions (but left off his Key Ingredient, Vienna Beef hot dogs).
Mark Steuer of Carriage House and The Bedford, who once tackled banana, went a little fancier with chicken liver mousse topped with Malort gelee.
We've learned at past Green City Market barbecues to always stop by the stand with Dale Levitski, who's never been a Key Ingredient contestant (though both Sprout and Frog N Snail have been with his employees). He had a wonderfully refreshing millet cake with foie gras, strawberries and rhubarb.
Ben Sheagren of The Hopleaf used his Key Ingredient, coffee, in these spicy puffed-millet pops.
Chris Pandel (eschewing jujubes) and John Ross of The Bristol dishing up a rhubarb-millet pudding.
We missed some of the celery dishes, which were gone by the time we reached that side, but one we got to try was this Coda alla Vaccinara, a butcher's style oxtail and celery stew with a celery heart and leaf salad, by Rob Levitt of The Butcher & Larder, who once faced down abalone.
We don't remember what ingredient Marianne Sundquist used (it wasn't this one). All we know is that these little white chocolate coated balls of custard were a great ending.
The event benefited the Healthy Schools Campaign.
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