'86'D': A Series Of Friendly (But Fierce) Battles Of Local Chefs

The two apron-clad chefs entered the kitchen at West Hartford's Savoy Pizzeria to the sounds of a cheering audience and thumping hip-hop beats, primed for a gastronomic duel.

Before facing three mystery proteins and sauces that would determine their competitive dishes, the chefs were asked to present an ingredient of their choosing. Eric Stagl, in keeping with the specialty of his food truck, Yardbird & Co., held up a whole chicken with its head and feet intact.

Van Hurd of Middletown's Taino Smokehouse brandished a live lobster, which was still kicking.

"Lobster, baby!" he hollered into emcee Scott Miller's microphone, unleashing a primal scream before tearing off its tail and claws.

Stagl and Hurd were the inaugural contestants at the early February launch of "86'D: A Culinary Collision," a new series of friendly battles running through August featuring Connecticut's top chefs. The late-night throwdowns, beginning at 10 p.m., are all held at open-kitchen venues within 5 miles of Hartford.

The event series is produced by Eat IN Connecticut, a West Hartford-based marketing and public-relations firm that focuses on food, drink and lifestyle clients; and Miller, chief operating officer and partner of the DORO Restaurant Group. The team joined forces in December to plan interactive events that would bring people in the restaurant industry together, Miller says.

"We've been talking about doing something like this for years," he says. "Most of the times where we get together, it's so few and far between, like big charity events where we don't get to hang out."

Secrecy is part of each event: Locations are announced on the Friday before every Monday battle, and the competing chefs are only revealed to the audience at the start of the faceoff. (Chefs are paired up after organizers randomly choose names from a hat.)

The chefs, given three mystery ingredients and the use of a kitchen pantry, must create a minimum of two dishes in 45 minutes, using all three surprise items. Three judges choose the winning chef, based on point totals for originality, flavor, plating and cleanliness of their station.

Guests watch the action and root for their favorite contestant while enjoying snacks provided by the host venue and draft beer, courtesy of a beer sponsor. Each chef brings along a bartender to shake up a specialty cocktail for the crowd, and audience members are encouraged to vote for their favorite drink at the end of the night. (The winning mixologist gets a trophy, as does the winning chef.)

The organizers settled on "86'D" as a nod to kitchen jargon, a term used when a menu item has run out, to denote the cutthroat nature of the competitions. The series also benefits a local charity, with a portion of proceeds from ticket sales going to End Hunger Connecticut.

Eat IN Connecticut partners Kristen Fritz and Jeannette Dardenne say they've been gratified to see the response to the series, which saw its first two events sell out. "It's just been so incredible to watch the community embrace this; not just within the restaurant industry, but the public as well," Fritz said.

"They get to see something very exciting; it's like 'Chopped,' live, in their face," Dardenne says. "And people are so into food. The energy in that room; it gives me chills just thinking about it. It's invigorating."

Stagl, an experienced fine-dining chef who launched the Yardbird food truck with business partner Mallary Kohlmeyer last spring, won the first competition by one point. He admitted that his first battle against Hurd was "nerve-wracking as hell" but "super fun."

"I've never done a battle like that or a contest or anything like that. ... Van has obviously seen the spotlight a couple of times," he says, referencing the Taino chef's experience as a contestant on Fox's "Hell's Kitchen" reality show. "It was intense, definitely."

Despite Stagl's several years at Max's Oyster Bar, he was thrown for a loop when he was given whole parrotfish as one of his secret ingredients.

"We never cooked parrotfish, ever. I don't know much about it, but I knew I wasn't going to serve it raw." He ended up searing the fish and roasting it in Savoy's pizza oven. (Hurd butter-poached that lobster as one of his four dishes.)

Craig Hutchinson emerged victorious over Savoy managing partner Dante Paul Cistulli after their March 6 matchup at Hartford Flavor Company, thanks in part to his pasta-making skill and some luck with the featured secret ingredients: Mystic Cheese's Melinda Mae, Benton's bacon and hearts of palm. The former Caseus chef and partner in [oink], a Connecticut pop-up concept, brought semolina to the battle and won over the judges with his fresh cavatelli carbonara.

"I figured it would be impressive to make pasta dough [and] hand shape it all," Hutchinson says. "Luckily, the ingredients were in my favor and allowed me to pull out one of my all-time favorite comfort dishes." He also produced a lamb tartare dish using the Melinda Mae cheese, with hearts of palm, herbs, bacon-roasted mushrooms, Bordelaise, lemon and sea salt.

"I come from restaurants where the menu is printed every day, so being creative with different ingredients used to be a challenge," he says. "Now if I don't have that format of cooking, I get bored very quickly. I've been very fortunate to be mentored by some of the best chefs in the country, and they have always pushed me to be faster, tastier and more creative than those around me."

"My goal was to have an event where chefs can be chefs and cook their food," says Miller. "This way, they can really, really put something on a plate that stands for them, and is their food, 100 percent. And they have their peers surrounding them, and it's fun, it's different."

Sixteen chefs will participate in the first round of battles, with upcoming events in April, May, June and August. Chefs scheduled to compete in the future include Jesse Powers, Jason Welch, Hunter Morton, Prasad Chirnomula, April Melisa, Scott Damboise, Xavier Santiago, Roy Riedl, David Awad, Renee Touponce, Niles Talbot and Chris Sheehan.

Winners from the first eight battles earn a trophy, a chef's prize and bragging rights, and will move on to quarterfinal, semifinal and final competitions with dates to be determined.

Fritz and Dardenne say they're happy to be part of the effort to shine more light on the area's culinary talent. They hope to expand the series, as interest from chefs, spectators and sponsors continues to grow.

"Connecticut is not just between New York and Boston. We're an actual place," Dardenne says.

"We've got farms in our backyards, the freshest ingredients possible, seafood. … We're very lucky and it's a much bigger food destination than people realize," Fritz says.

86'D tickets are $20 online; $25 at the door if available (and frequently sell out in advance). Battles are scheduled for April 3 and 17, May 15, June 5 and Aug. 28. Visit 86Dculinarycollision.com.

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