(Updated at 5:25 p.m.) Local chefs walked away with big wins at a charity cooking competition in Clarendon last night.
The Arlington County Fire Department’s finest firehouse cooks faced off against three groups of local professional chefs in a reality TV-style cooking competition where the competitors had 25 minutes to whip up dishes using only ingredients found in the Arlington Food Assistance Center’s pantries.
Judges Scott Brodbeck of ARLnow.com, Becky Krystal of the Washington Post and Chef George Pagonis of Kapnos Taverna sampled each dish before choosing a winner of the round by ringing a large bell, signaling a vote for the firefighters, or putting on a chef’s hat. Chef David Guas of Bayou Bakery served as emcee for the night.
At the end of the night, the local chefs walked away from the Clarendon Ballroom (3185 Wilson Blvd) with two of the coveted “Golden Eggplant” awards.
Arlington County Fire Department’s Lt. Romulius Queen and firefighter Frank Rachal took home the first “Golden Eggplant” of the night with their Southern Style Fried Chicken topped with a homemade barbecue sauce and accompanied by a zucchini pasta with a thai peanut and ginger sauce. All three judges rang the bell.
“That fried chicken, he really nailed it,” Pagonis said.
Queen and Rachal beat out SER Restaurant chef and co-owner Josu Zubikarai, who made Rulada chicken ragout with mushrooms and spicy vegetables.
It was Queen’s first time competing in AFAC’s Chiefs vs. Chefs event.
“It feels good to go home with a trophy instead of going home crying,” he said.
Chef Tom Madrecki of Chez le Commis took home the second “Eggplant” with his caramelized onion soup with buttermilk, accompanied by homemade bread with butter. He earned the votes of two out of the three judges for his simple but flavorful soup.
Cooking with only the food in AFAC’s pantry was a challenge, Madrecki said.
“It’s reflective of what thousands of Arlington families have to do every day, so it’s very rewarding,” he said.
Facing off against ACFD’s finest brought its own difficulties as the firefighters were both skilled chefs and have a connection to the community, Madrecki said. Votes for the firefighters were applauded by the crowd, whereas votes for the chefs were greeted by good-natured boos.
“We’re the underdogs as the chef because they’re the ones out in the community everyday,” he said. “They’re the ones protecting us so it’s an honor to cook with them.”
Cooking is part of the firehouse lifestyle, said Acting Chief Joesph Reshetar, adding that the firefighters often try out new dishes on their coworkers.
“The firehouse is where they experiment,” he said. “If you can please us, if you can please a group of people, you know you’re on to something.”
Many of the firefighters learn cooking skills from home, including Queen and firefighter Blair Cameron, who made a sausage and tortellini soup for the second round. Some firefighters also work part time in the food industry, Reshetar said.
Despite being the “underdogs,” the chefs walked away with the third “Eggplant.” Brodbeck and Pagonis both seemed to waver before choosing to put a chef’s hat on, while Krystal confidently rang the fire bell.
Chef Jesus Guzman of the U.S. Navy earned the judges’ favor with his “Breakfast in Paradise” dish, containing peanut butter, banana and mint stuffed french toast covered in oatmeal with a sweet potato hash and homemade chicken sausage.
Guzman faced off against firefighters Tony Westfall and Greg Hendershot, who made chicken croquettes. Westfall walked away with a “Golden Eggplant” at last’s year competition, putting him at a slight advantage over Guzman.
“We knew we had a really good challenger,” Guzman said.
The charity event raised about $45,000 in ticket sales and $10,000 in donations throughout the night for AFAC, said Joy Myers, director of development for AFAC. She said the proceeds will feed about 100 families throughout the next year.