If you love hot yeast rolls topped with crunchy salt and stuffed with spicy Italian sausage, ground beef, onion, cabbage and garlic, you are going to love the Texas Renaissance Festival's newest food item, the Bierock, which won the event's Royal Chef Showdown Tuesday afternoon.
Four judges including the former chef to Princess Di and Queen Elizabeth II, Darren McGrady, Ken Hoffman of CultureMap, Phaedra Cook of Houston Food Finder and yours truly, tasted nine finalists' Ren Fest inspired creations and were highly-impressed with Round Rock-based cake decorator and sugar artist Robin "Of The Hood" Mueller, whose rich, savory roll blew away the competition. She is the first-ever winner of the festival's King's Beard Award.
The stuffed roll is all about those feel-good, autumnal vibes, and as McGrady pointed out during the competition, "Would also work nicely as a hand warmer. I'll take 12 to go." You'll probably want to keep a hand free to accompany this decadent roll with a large pint of beer. We downed ours with a sampling of an Oktoberfest brew, which paired nicely (though the actual brewery was never verified).
"Traditionally, this is kind of a peasant food," Mueller said during her presentation. "It's a bread, a filled pocket of ground beef and onion, but I did a spicier version.". Mueller also took into consideration how difficult it could be to crank these out at the festival. "You don't have to let the bread rise. You can just freeze it and then bring it to temperature," making the prep a cinch even at high volume, without sacrificing flavor.
On top of winning $10,000, Mueller's dish will appear on the 2018 annual season menu (the Royal Chef Showdown was sadly postponed from its original August date due to Hurricane Harvey, so that put a damper on rolling out the winning dish in full force for 2017)
Another tidbit that will also make you feel really great about Mueller's win: She also works as a special needs chef, preparing entrees for clients who not only have dietary restrictions but are also on the autism spectrum.
Another standout included the runner-up dish, Chicken and POW-ffles from Hotel ZaZa's Larry De La Flor, who explained the concept actually came about when a recent wedding party inquired about having chicken and waffles at their reception. De La Flor took his concept a step further by incorporating the Ren Fest's upcoming Heroes and Villains theme week into account, creating two chicken-stuffed waffles on a stick, one that's "evil" with a strawberry and chipotle sauce and another that's "good" with blueberry sauce and a lavender powder sugar, that was truly outstanding.
The cool thing about this competition is that the chefs worked with the festival's existing vendors, and even the dishes that didn't win have made a lasting impression on many of the food operators. Expect to see more diverse culinary influences in the future, including Indo-Pak elements inspired by third place chef Marco Salazar's "Bombay Pillows," Indian Butter Chicken stuffed puff pastry that was an aromatic and intoxicating bite. The Angleton-based chef was immersed in Pakistani cuisine while serving the United States Air Force for eight years, and created his own masala spice blend for the dish.
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Two local standouts also included chef Benoit Coquand of the Culinary Institute LeNôtre, whose Caribbean-influenced Jerk chicken sandwich was served in the most flavorful fermented bread with notes of turmeric and cilantro, and a spicy mango-habanero salsa. And Martha De Leon, whose fried pork shoulder bites, laced with fennel and chile flake, definitely deserve a place on Pax Americana's happy hour snack menu.