Houston chefs have been appearing on Food Network’s show Chopped regularly as of late. Early this month, Jason Kerr of Treadsack’s seafood supply company CHOAM, Dawn Burrell of Uchi Houston and Underbelly sous chef Gary Ly competed head-to-head as well as against Italian chef Raffaele Ronca of Ristorante Ronca in New York. Ronca ended up winning.
Last night, Martin Weaver took his turn in the ring. At the time, he was chef de cuisine at KUU, but he's since left and starts his new job at Brennan’s of Houston today.
He grew up in a restaurant family. His father ran Weaver’s Barbecue in Houston for years before relocating to the little Texas town of Hemphill. His dad now runs Hemphill Barbecue there. Weaver decided to strike out on his own rather than join the family business. He attended Le Cordon Bleu in Austin to expand his knowledge and skill set.
“I remember growing up in Houston, I got to try a lot of different foods, because my dad took us to a lot of different places to eat,” said Weaver. “I remember really enjoying them and wanting to learn about them, so that’s really what got me out of barbecue. I knew everything I needed to know about barbecue, so I wanted to see what else was out there. I wanted to be more.”
Like Kerr in the earlier competition, Weaver made it all the way to the final round. The show theme was Chinese New Year, and the chefs found traditional celebration foods in their baskets, including fully prepared and fruit-topped New Year’s rice pudding, Peking duck, Chinese sausage, turnip cake and even chicken feet. Weaver handled every round gamely, preparing ingredients with methods that ensured he had enough time at the end to construct the type of beautiful plates typical of KUU, a Japanese restaurant in the Gateway Memorial center.
Interestingly, a former Houston pastry chef competed as well. Vanarin Kuch made a name for himself as pastry chef of Tiny Boxwoods before moving to New York. He’s now the pastry chef at Andaz 5th Avenue. The other competitors were Justin Herrera of Navy Restaurant, also in New York, and Kathy Fang of Fang Restaurant in San Francisco.
Herrera seemed frazzled during the appetizer round and mismanaged his time. His tempura rice pudding, a required ingredient, never made it to the judges' plates. He was “chopped” for the omission.
Kuch didn't make it to the dessert round, where he would have had a huge advantage. He was cut in round two, the entrée round, after serving chef-judges Chris Cheung, Amanda Freitag and Scott Conant undercooked red snapper.
Until the dessert round, judges had nothing but compliments for Weaver, except for noting that his chunks of Peking duck in the appetizer round were a little overcooked and he didn't remove the claws from the chicken feet. The four required ingredients for the dessert round were giant fortune cookies, winter melon, ginger beer and “good luck candies,” a hard, strawberry-flavored treat traditionally given away during Chinese New Year.
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For a while, Weaver looked as if he had a lock on a win. While Fang worked on rice pudding (not the same kind used as a key ingredient in the first round), Weaver made little cakes, wisely put the winter melon into a compressor machine to firm it and intensify the flavor, and prepared the giant fortune cookies to use as both a base and a crumble for his dessert.
The cakes were his downfall. Even after ten minutes in the oven, they were distressingly raw, and even at the end of cooking time, one was seeping batter. That one Weaver put into a microwave to ensure the middle got cooked. In retrospect, he really should have done that with all four of the little cakes. Sure enough, the ones served to the judges were still raw in the middle, not simply “moist” as Weaver had hoped. Fang took the win.
We wondered if there was an issue with the oven, and Weaver says it definitely didn’t get as hot as the one he’s used to working with at KUU.
This may not be Weaver’s last appearance on Chopped (or Kerr’s for that matter). As chefs who made it to the final round, Weaver says, they are eligible for a possible redemption show in the future. We hope to see these Houston chefs get another chance to bring home a win.