By Yasmin Nissim and Chris Cline
We’ve told you about secret ingredients. We’ve told you about top chefs. We’ve told you about edible marvels that are a wonder to behold and a delight to devour. But now, we would like to take you behind the scenes to give you a glimpse of the vital moving parts that make each evening at Duelling Chefs such a success. This article is dedicated to the unsung heroes of this competition: the servers.
This week’s duel was an unbelievably well-matched meeting between chef René Rodriguez of Navarra, a Byward Market restaurant with a Basque flair, and chef Peter Robblee of Juniper Kitchen and Wine Bar, the host venue for this fantastic event. But enough about the chefs! This being our fourth duel of the competition, it’s difficult not to notice the ever-present, joyful demeanour and unerring efficiency of the wait staff at Juniper.
These individuals not only ensure the comfort of the guests attending the event, but they are also key players in the competition itself. One of the contest rules for Duelling Chefs is that the restaurants must expedite each course within ten minutes or they will receive no votes for that course. Keep everyone happy, keep the food moving and keep the evening on schedule – whirlwind tasks executed as smooth as whipped butter each competition round.
We had the opportunity to sit down, post-duel, with three of Juniper’s finest: Katelynn Scott – Server Extraordinaire, Jess Dewar – Brilliant Bartender and Kevin “The Plumber” Ambridge – Manager. As to the plumber bit, well it’s because Kevin takes care of shi…you get the idea. Despite the lateness of the evening, these three let us pick their brains about the differences, difficulties and deliciousness of working a Duelling Chefs match.
We figured one of the hardest parts of the evening would be having to give away the plates. All that good food and it’s right out onto the floor for the guests! When asked whether they have any strategies on fighting the inevitable munchies, Jess let us know that her secret was juice, as it “keeps you full, and keeps your sugar up.” That being said however, Katelynn did let us know that although they may not get to try every course, “if there are leftovers, the chefs certainly take care of us!”
Duelling Chefs is not your typical evening out for dinner, so we were also interested in finding out whether a different approach when interacting with guests was necessary. Katelynn informed us that “a guest is a guest” and whether you’re at Juniper for a Duelling Chefs match or a regular evening of dining, consistency is key. “You’re going to get the same treatment no matter what,” said Katelynn. The atmosphere however is something that takes on quite a different flavour. Jess found that servers have “the time to interact with tables between courses, and the mood is totally different…everyone is so excited to be here during the competition!”
In terms of the management approach, Kevin was quick to state how solid his team was on the floor and that “communication is everything, and our servers are great at communicating.” He generally has a core of six people who are serving, some of whom served for last year’s event as well, “so things are quite smooth during Duelling Chefs.” Seems like those plumbing skills aren’t all that necessary for this event.
As to their favourite part of a Duelling Chefs evening, the answer from Katelynn was quite simple: “Go time! When Chef’s saying ‘30 seconds’, we’re all lined up in the back, plates are up and we’re just waiting for Chef to snap his fingers so we can go!” This week, these intrepid servers were presenting guests with a menu that included Greek yogurt as the secret ingredient, sea scallops as the fish selection and hanger steak for the meat course. Go time!
Juniper: Tuna and homemade taco, avocado salsa, Greek yogurt sauce
Juniper jumped out of the gate with an exquisite take on the standard taco. The dish incorporated a mild yet flavourful tuna that was wonderfully browned. The combination of avocado salsa, lime and savoury Greek yogurt gave this dish a fresh tone. The package was held together with a lovely homemade, soft and fresh taco shell. If taco shells this fresh and tasty could be sold in grocery stores the world over, the earth would be a much happier place.
Navarra: Paccheri pasta, putanesca sauce and Greek yogurt ricotta
Even on the first course, Navarra was defying expectations. At first glance, their Amuse entry appeared to be a traditional cannelloni. On further inspection however, it became apparent that chef Rodriguez had decided to forgo the standard stuffed shell approach, placing the yogurt-infused ricotta underneath the shell as opposed to in it. The putanesca sauce, a fiery tomato based number, had a nice tang courtesy of the included olives. This was nearly a winner, but was edged out by the fresh tastes of Juniper’s entry.
Juniper: Smoked, seared scallop, truffle yogurt celeriac puree, apple-fennel-bacon hash
The scallops in this dish were at once sweet and salty, tender and smoky. The celeriac puree was heady and peppery, and the inclusion of bacon reflected the saltiness found at the edges of the scallop. Yaz particularly enjoyed the inclusion of apple, as it broke the salty-savoury flavours of the puree.
Navarra: Sea scallop in agua-chile with cilantro lime and chillies, pork crackling and Greek yogurt crème fraiche
Chris likened this course to an indoor farmers market where the smells of fresh seafood, meats, fruit, vegetables and herbs mingle to create that distinct market aroma. This was another dish that used apple for a hint of freshness, and it also had a nice, spicy kick courtesy of the chillies. Yaz was particularly impressed that the scallop was served cold, not warm and seared like so many other scallop dishes. Both Yaz and Chris gave Navarra the nod for the adventurous nature of their creation.
Juniper: Yogurt marinated hanger steak, horseradish yogurt and chip napoleon, caramelized onion reduction
Hanger steak has a reputation for being extremely meaty and tender, and that was no exception here. Served alongside a series of crispy chips, and held together with dollops of horseradish yogurt, the steak had a chance to display its power. The use of horseradish in the yogurt lent the dish a perfectly punchy flavour.
Navarra: Taco Mexicano – marinated hanger steak with pineapple, oaxacan burnt onion relish, red chilli-yogurt crema, cilantro and Lyon sausage
This was the evening’s second successful stab at producing pure taco bliss, which is fortunate because Yaz is an absolute taco fiend. Both reviewers got the feeling that Chef Rodriguez was flexing his Basque cooking muscles here. The dish incorporated a slew of flavours, from the smokiness of the sausage and burnt onion relish, to the sweetness of the pineapple. This was a course that could be enjoyed by deconstructing its component parts, or by wrapping it up in the flawless corn tortilla. Again, Navarra took both Yaz and Chris’ votes for this edible mosaic.
Juniper: Orange yogurt panna cotta, nut and fruit granola, chocolate yogurt mousse stuffed cannoli
Orange chocolate lovers look out: this treat offered flavours to be remembered. The orange-infused panna cotta, a Northern Italian dish made by simmering yogurt, milk and sugar together, was incredible on its own. The addition of a delicious burnt-chocolate cannoli, stuffed with chocolate yogurt mouse, mixed with the citrusy yogurt wonderfully. With the salty granola as a rock-solid base, both Yaz and Chris would eat this dish again in a heartbeat. And again, and again. Juniper received both votes here.
Navarra: Greek yogurt parfait with quinoa, blueberry-passion fruit and coconut froth
This dish arrived in a standard rocks glass, earning points for its presentation. Both Yaz and Chris were surprised by the use of quinoa in a dessert, which has a distinctly starchy flavour. The yogurt was left unsweetened, relying on the fruits and coconut froth to sweeten the dessert on their own. While the presentation was refreshing, it could have used more in the sweet department, coming off as more of a classy breakfast than a dessert.
This was a tough match according to the judges, which we wouldn’t doubt for a second. We were both evenly split down the middle between the two kitchens. Eventually the winner was unveiled as Juniper, however Navarra is most certainly on our radar for future outings!
So ends another successful match of Duelling Chefs! There are five matches still remaining, with a possible rescheduling for the Flying Piggy’s duel which was cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances. As this is a charitable event with all proceeds going towards six local non-profits, you can help out by purchasing tickets online. Next up: The Urban Pear on April 18th!