Washington’s top chefs battled for a good cause at last night’s Capital Food Fight, which brought together celebrity hosts, 75 local restaurants, and 1,200 hungry guests at the Ronald Reagan Building. Four local toques faced off in an Iron Chef-style cooking competition, with running commentary from The Chew’s Carla Hall and José Andrés. By the end of the evening $550,000 was raised for DC Central Kitchen.
Hosts Hall and Andrés owned the stage with their high-energy antics, with help from judges Anne Burrell from The Food Network, restaurateurs Richard Sandoval and Spike Mendelsohn, and Mark Kessler – stadium voice for the Washington Redskins – who served as emcee. Centrolina chef/owner Amy Brandwein was the big winner of the night, turning a hunk of pig shoulder into a mouth-watering dish in under ten minutes, and narrowly beating Indique owner K.N. Vinod for the title. With so many big personalities sharing a stage, there were plenty of memorable moment leading up to the finale.
Here are some of the highlights:
Best Throwback Thursday moment: Throughout the evening Andrés tried to get the audience to join him in a singalong of the oft-forgotten hit “Who Let the Dogs Out” by the Baha Men. As much as the crowd loved Andrés, they declined to return to the year 2000 with him.
Weirdest compliment: During the second round of competition, Hall was so enthralled by the aroma of Indique owner K.N. Vinod’s spice mix that she passed it around for the other judges to smell. While most liked the fragrance, Burrell was more descriptive: “It smells like BO, but the BO of someone you like,” she said.
Fashion faux-pas: “I want to thank Jose for getting dressed up tonight,” said emcee Mark Kessler of the chef, who sported a t-shirt, puffy vest, and jeans. “I didn’t realize there was a sale going on at Wal-Mart.”
Best dressed: Miss District of Columbia Haely Jardas, who took the stage with a bell to announce when the cooking competition was finished. With her sparkly gold mini-dress, sash and tiara, she added some pageant-worthy glamour to the spectacle.
Top auction item: By far the most successful auction item of the night was the “2016 Year of Fine Dining.” The package – 12 meals for six guests with wine pairings at some of Washington’s finest restaurants – received lots of bids from the foodie crowd. The prize went to a group in front of the stage for a total of $15,000. The item was originally valued at $9,000.
The better sex: Before the final battle, the judges got their hands dirty with their own competition. Hall, Burrell and last year’s winner (and soon to be Top Chef contestant) Marjorie Meek-Bradley, squared off against Mendelsohn, Sandoval and Ace of Cakes’ Duff Goldman. Andrés couldn’t help taking sides: “If you want to run the world the right way, put a woman in charge” he said to cheers from the audience.
Most spontaneous fundraising opportunity: After the judges’ competition produced two rich dishes of buttery goodness, Kessler suggested bringing an audience member to the stage to act as guest judge–for a $1,000 donation. Three women agreed to split the cost, the men’s dish was declared the winner, and DC Central kitchen gained another grand.
Wildest ingredient: The secret ingredient for the final competition was a full pig laid out on a platter—head, feet, the works. The vegetarian Vinod didn’t miss a beat, preparing a pork dish that, according to judges, was nearly as good as Brandwein’s.
Best almost-haiku: In the final moments of the competition, the judges had to choose between Brandwein and Vinod’s pork dishes. As the stage fell silent, Andrés sidled up to the judges table, stole a bite and declared “I love the tension in the room. My mouth is full of pork. It’s so tasty.”