An Unlikely Winner at the Mushroom Throwdown

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The big guns were brought out last night for the fourth -- and largest to date -- throwdown organized by Jenny Wang and the Houston Chowhounds: the Mushroom Throwdown at Vic & Anthony's. From the judging panel, which featured Texas Monthly food editor Patricia Sharpe and Houston Chronicle food editor Greg Morago (as well as our very own Ruthie Johnson), to the lineup of competing chefs, it was a night full of fantastic food and an ending no one could have predicted.

The range of chefs competing ran the gamut from Houston's old guard, rock star chefs like Robert Del Grande (RDG + Bar Annie) and Mark Cox (Mark's) to established, well-respected talent like Michael Kramer (VOICE) and Chris Shepherd (Catalan) to young ingenues like Cunninghame West (Valentino) and L.J. Wiley (Yelapa Playa Mexicana). Rounding out the competitor lineup were Carlos Rodriguez (Vic & Anthony), David Grossman (Branch Water Tavern), Grant Hunter (Brenner's on the Bayou) and Rebecca Masson.

Masson embodied a trifecta of curiosities: She was the only female competitor, the only pastry chef and the only entrant without a restaurant sponsoring her. While the other entrants had the backing of their restaurants -- along with their own armies of sous chefs and assistants -- Masson is currently unemployed and had only her trusty sous Tracie Hartman to help her out. She laughingly displayed her nametag for us, which listed the Texas Workforce Commission ("TWC") as her sponsor.

As the entries from each team rushed out of the hectic but remarkably well choreographed kitchen and hit the judges' table, each head chef stepped into the room to explain their dish, Iron Chef-style, and how it incorporated the chosen ingredient of mushrooms. The judges chatted with the chefs and snapped pictures of their plates before digging in.

Meanwhile, in the large ballroom outside the sequestered judges' room, hundreds of guests sampled the judges' dishes from large steam trays while munching on Vic & Anthony's treats. A cordoned-off table sat to the front of the room, holding the dishes entered by Chowhound members into the amateur portion of the cookoff. The rice casseroles -- which included entries such as bibimbop, jambalaya and a shrimp and cabbage casserole -- were in turn judged by the chefs who competed. And near the entrance, T-shirts and cookbooks were for sale, with proceeds benefiting Recipe For Success.

After all the madness in the kitchen died down, the last dish had been judged and only the die-hards were left in the ballroom, Jenny Wang entered with the tallied judges' ballots to announce the winners. Tied for third place were young chefs Cunninghame West and David Grossman. West had presented a dish of mushroom with rabbit marsala and creamy polenta that was a favorite among the guests, while Grossman had created a pert black trumpet mushroom & butternut squash soup dumpling with goat cheese fondue and watercress. In second place was Mark Cox with his beautifully presented mushroom medley salad with a grilled portabella dome.

First place went to none other than the unsponsored pastry chef, Rebecca Masson. While the other chefs (and the guests) may have been stunned to see a pastry chef win a competition against executive chefs, using a savory ingredient and creating a dessert -- not a regular dish -- out of the mushrooms, the judges had all been floored by Masson's creation.

Using candy cap mushrooms that she had sourced from Oregon, Masson created a traditionally Southern dessert -- ice box pie -- with a porcini chocolate crust, candy cap custard and toasted meringue. The unusual candy cap mushrooms with their thick, fragrant aroma of maple syrup and naturally sweet taste made for a highly original and altogether clever entry. No one could argue its first place merit, especially after tasting the dessert.

The next throwdown is tentatively scheduled for July, and most specifics -- including the chef lineup and the ingredient -- are still up in the air. But one thing will surely be settled soon: the tremendously talented Masson won't possibly be unemployed much longer.

For many more photos from the night, check out our slideshow.

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