In good fun: 15 chefs cook their hearts out for the Center of Excellence

Watching casual cooks, led by local chefs, cook themselves to victory at the Epicurean was a treat.

click to enlarge Bay area chefs coaching three teams of four through Friday's culinary competition at the Epicurean. - Shelbi Hayes
Shelbi Hayes
Bay area chefs coaching three teams of four through Friday's culinary competition at the Epicurean.


Everyone loves a good meal. An exciting night out watching teams of casual cooks, led by local chefs, cook themselves to victory is a treat all its own.

Friday night, Tampa Bay chefs Ferrell Alvarez of Rooster & the Till, Tyson Grant of Parkshore Grill and Eric Lackey of Ulele gathered to coach three teams of four in a culinary competition benefiting the Hillsborough County Center of Excellence. Held at the Epicurean Hotel's theater in SoHo, the event, whose chef and spectator fees were donated to the Center, was hosted by local FOX 13 anchor Russell Rhodes and celebrity chef Max Hardy.

Hardy has two connections to the region. He moved here from Detroit as a young boy and was also a part of the Center of Excellence program. The chef reminisced with Dr. Mary Lindsey, director of the organization for 30 years, about how he used to not want to leave the Center on Saturdays.

As Alvarez, Grant, Lackey and their cooking squads prepared to square off, a curveball was thrown at them: they'd need to use a handful of random ingredients during two 30-minute food battle sessions. Their first session required the use of shrimp, pumpkin and coconut milk, while the second had to include pepperoncinis and ground beef.

Those in the seats of the Epicurean Theatre didn't get to taste the trio's dishes. But they were treated to a three-course meal while watching the kitchen's creativity translate into inventive delights.

Spectators cheering on their friends made the competition more lively, and even with 15 chefs, the kitchen moved like clockwork. Each team had its own tempo, working on table-top induction burners and branching out into the Viking appliance-filled show kitchen to cook their hearts out.

"If you would have told me there would be 12 non-professional chefs, three professional chefs and two emcees running around, I wouldn’t have believed it would be so clean," said Chad Johnson, executive chef of Élevage and Haven down the road. "I would have thought we would need a squeegee."

The teams pumped out dishes such as sautéed shrimp with pumpkin ragu, stuffed pepperoncinis and a red wine and mushroom glossed Salisbury steak, to name a few. Grant's crew even attempted a quick-set ice cream, but the science wasn’t on their side. Instead, their ice cream became a milkshake.

Before Lackey's team, who prided themselves on their Southern roots, were awarded first place (a goody box that included wine, glassware and a stay at the Epicurean), Dr. Lindsey reminded the crowd, "Everyone wins at the Center of Excellence."

Hardy also had some advice for the evening's guests: Don't just donate money. Give time and volunteer, too.

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