Grits have been an integral part of my life since I could gum food. Naturally, I was eager to get my gums (and teef) on the grits concoctions at Thursday evening's Kiss My Grits Gulf Coast Throwdown. Young Texans Against Cancer cobbled together Houston chefs and challenged them to create grits dishes which were judged by a panel based on flavor, creativity and presentation. Attendees were able to vote for their favorites by placing red Mardi Gras beads in voting boxes at each serving station.
The competitors were: Chef Randy Evans of Haven; Chef Jeramie Robison of Restaurant Cinq; Chef Randy Rucker of Bootsie's; Chef Jonathan Jones of Beaver's; Chef Jamie Zelko of Zelko's Bistro; Chef Elouise Adams of Ouisie's Table; Chef Jason Gould of Cyclone Anaya's; Chef Manabu "Hori" Horiuchi and Seth Siegel-Gardner of Kata Robata; Chef Chris Shepherd of Catalan; and Chef Mark Holley of Pesce.
With a line-up like that, I didn't expect many, if any, bowls of regular old white grits and butter being pushed my way, and I was not disappointed. Chef Evans got creative with the grits interpretation, serving up two varieties of congee, sausage or crawfish, and an array of accouterments to garnish the dish. My dining companion and I agreed that the sausage congee with minced duck egg and a bit of cracklin was top-shelf. But, congee isn't grits.
Top marks for creativity (and deliciousness) go to Chef Holley for his shrimp sausage-and-grits gnocchi dish. The savory saltiness of the shrimp sausage made for a well-rounded experience when taken with a bit of the gnocchi, which was perfectly pan-seared without being tough or overcooking the inside.
Chef Jones's grits and grillades was the most disappointing dish last night, because I expected it to crush the competition. I am a Beaver's veteran, but not a regular. Grits and grillades is on my staple list, but last night's offering missed the mark. The brisket was tough and a bit chilled, as were the grits. It seemed as if I'd quickly microwaved a box of leftovers. I'll chalk it up to a chafing dish mishap, and follow up with a retry soon.
My choice for third place, and best straightforward grits approach, was Chef Rucker's "What is it?" "I'll go with a perfectly seasoned dollop of grits (very dumpling like) and a matching serving of egg mousse, chef." Each was topped with a bit of cracklin and a drizzle of maplesyrup. The grits were so perfect that I wouldn't have considered asking for salt or butter had I been served enough to warrant either. And the mousse? Fuhgeddaboudit. The delicate eggs melted away on your tongue leaving a hint of syrup that left you wondering when your small stack would arrive.
Chefs Seth and Hori locked up my vote for second place with an offering of kimchi grits, which was sort of a misnomer, as the kimchi was in a fried dumpling plopped on top of a grits base. The grits were stealthily cheesy, and creamy enough to make gelato jealous. Left to my own devices, I would have rushed the table and stolen the pot of grits and gotten down to business. Yet, these were not the best grits offered at the event.
The serving station just past the registration desk belonged to Chef Elouise Adams and her shrimp and grits. The preparation was very traditional. Grits, shrimp and mushrooms combined with a white wine sauce were served over grits: basic, no-frills Southern goodness on a plastic plate that was inhaled with the assistance of a very stylish disposable fork. Although I at first attributed my high marks for the dish to it being the first I'd had, my preference was confirmed after a side-by-side taste off of my top three.
The judges and attendees had a slightly different take on things than I did. The judges deemed Chefs Seth and Hori's kimchi grits worthy of first place. They awarded second place to Chef Jeramie Robison's cilantro grits accompanied by a poached quail egg and grilled fish.
The Mardi Gras bead-wielding diners tapped Chef Jason Gould with the first place baton for his arugula & apple salad served over a fried grits cake. Chef Mark Holley garnered second-place honors for his sausage and gnocchi dish.
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In the end, diners left stuffed, buzzed and happy, while the cook-off raised $45,000 to benefit The Methodist Hospital Foundation and MD Anderson Cancer Center-Esophageal Cancer Research.
Flo would have been proud.