The Young Texans Against Cancer's YTAC 2nd Annual Kiss My Grits Throwdown revealed a couple of things. First, that young Houstonians are more than willing to engage in philanthropy for a good cause, and second, that any food competition featuring 10 chefs is a huge draw.
Host venue The Capitol at St. Germain generously donated their two-story space, complete with a stage for SXSW favorite cover band Skyrocket. The event was full of true mental and physical grit as ten amazing chefs competed for bragging rights and the popular vote.
Entering the venue, you couldn't help but be drawn in by the smoky table with flashing lights by Chef Kevin Bryant and Team The Capitol at St. Germain. Bryant created chocolate-covered grits lollipops that were lavishly displayed amid bowls of smoking liquid nitrogen. Each of the lollipops was labeled with one word, combining to read "kiss my grits."
To make things even more interesting, he was serving what looked like a science experiment's worth of smoky test tube shots. Each shot was topped off with liquid nitrogen before being served, and the combination of Bailey's, tequila, liquid nitrogen, and other mystery ingredients combined to form a potently sweet, intoxicatingly addictive liquid shot. It was fun to see people tip their heads all the way back to get down the shot, and I enjoyed it so much, I think I downed five of them that night.
Moving on, Chef Mark Gabriel Medina of Kata Robata served one of my favorites of the night, uni cream grits with southern style crawfish and corn succotash. Topped with a fried beet chip, the uni blended seamlessly with the grits, giving it a consistency that was smoother and less gritty, like a creamy polenta. Medina deftly prepared the crawfish and corn succotash in small batches a la minute, so that everything was served freshly made and tasted like it had just come out of the kitchen.
Chef David Guerrero of Samba Grille spent five hours hand-crafting his almost black-colored blue corn grits "pepian, with Peruvian scallops escabeche, smoked aji amarillo butter, and chicken chicharron. The ambitious combination of flavors and textures showed a willingness to take risks, and there is no doubt that a lot of effort and preparation went into this dish, but the overall combination of flavors was bland.
Jonathan Jones and Alvin Schultz made huge round grit croquettes with a beet dolce. It looked fun, and plated well, but no pun intended -- the balls were just too big. Had the croquettes been fashioned in the traditional one-inch, round Spanish style, I think this dish would have given more of a bang.
The Modular Food Truck's Josh Martinez gave a solid effort, considering he'd never prepared grits before. He, too, took the competition really seriously, hand-harvesting what must of have pounds upon pounds of crawfish tails that he subsequently batter-fried and served with Louisiana hot sauce stone-ground grits. Combined with a delectable Homestead Gristmill grit macaroon with rye caramel chocolate ganache by Pastry Chef Rebecca Masson, the savory-sweet combo was a good one, but needed more to become a "wow."
Moving upstairs, Chef Ryan Hildebrand of Triniti greeted guests with a cool-looking dark-brown grits lollipop, springing forth from a bed of verdant grass. The artistry in the presentation was second-to-none, because the lollipops literally looked liked little flowers. Though the look was great and the taste was pretty good, I wanted more flavor-wise. In contrast to Jonathan Jones's dish, which was a bit too much, the one pretty bite in this one was almost a bit too little.
Next up, Chef Michael Pellegrino of Max's Wine Dive served an incredibly smooth and creamy, hearty-tasting, and empirically yummy grits mixed with braised oxtail. To make things fun, he brought along his dinosaur head and an almost scary-looking mannequin, adorned in Max's paraphernalia. I really enjoyed this dish from a flavor standpoint, but it would have been nice to have some contrasting texture.
Chef Mary Cuclis of Pondicheri was the surprise hit of the night for me, first because I'm not a huge Indian food lover, and second because the dish looked so unassuming. Her slow-roasted masala baby goat, with white grits uppma, topped with fresh pomegranates, produced an immediate "wow" upon taste. The contrast of creamy cheese grits against spicy braised goat and lightly crisp, cool pomegranate was indeed delicious. A vibrantly colored honey pistachio grits cake with fresh strawberries and a saag and blue grits cutlet were also good, but paled in comparison to the goat.
Moving on, Chef Ronnie Killen of Killen's Steakhouse in Pearland brought some gorgeous U-10 shrimp, which were sauteed on site before being doused in a smokey chipotle barbecue sauce, and served atop grits that were kind of a purplish gray color, like a taro root. The shrimp were delectable, but the smokey flavor was a bit overpowering, with the shrimp ended up being the highlight of the dish instead of the grits.
Chef Philip Speer and Team Uchi, which included Sous Chef Page Pressley and volunteers Philippe Gaston and Mike Castillo, were standing idle during the beginning of the event, but at its height, their booth ended up being the one most in demand.
With not one, but two complex, and delicious offerings, Speer delivered the knockout punch that would earn him the top prize for the evening. His savory lobster grits with pickled ramps, sweet peas tendrils, a buttered peanut butter powder and a corn and cognac bubble-foam was unique and strangely delicious. The bubble-foam literally looked like bubbles from a bubble bath, but the distinctive corn-cognac flavor came through, complementing the generous slices of lobster and corresponding lobster grits.
For me, though, the sweet part of his offering was the knockout, a slightly salty grit custard, grit sorbet, grit soup, grit tuile, and caramelized corn bottarga. Not only did he highlight the grits in the dessert, but the creamed corned-salty-crunchy flavor was spectacularly good.
Eatsie Boys' 8th Wonder Brewery was also on hand with much-loved samples of their house-brewed root beer floats, cool and welcome finishing touch after doing the round of grit tastings.
It's hard to describe the overall spirit of the Kiss My Grits throwdown, but it's really such a good time. The Chefs were working hard but having fun; I saw plenty of hugs and back-slapping going around. My favorite memory of the night is probably seeing Uchi's Page Pressley shout out "That's me!" when Skyrocket opened with strains of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain."
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The Kiss My Grits Gulf Coast Throwdown is an annual fundraiser for the YTAC. Participating chefs donated not only time but food, and all proceeds benefit the YTAC charities, with the ultimate goal of fighting cancer. That's it for now. Until next year.
Throwdown winner: Philip Speer of Uchi Runner-up: Marcy Cuclis of Pondicheri Popular Choice Winner: Kevin Bryant of the Capitol at St. Germain