Victory: Winning the Papi Tino’s New Chef Challenge

At first I was afraid, I was petrified. Cooking a still relatively unfamiliar-to-me cuisine and doing it with animal protein, something my vegetarian culinary school never discussed. But then I consulted with some experts, read up on Mexican cuisine (real Mex, not the “Tex” variety), and tested some recipes. Then I chose an outstanding collaborator for the finals, my fellow Natural Epicurean alum, Chip Singer, who is himself a pro at Latin cuisine and a terrific creative mind.

We were faced with a mystery box for the final round and we were up against students from the Escoffier and Cordon Bleu cooking schools here in Austin, both larger and if I understand correctly, much more established on the national scene (although Natural Epicurean has other locations in the works, including Portland).

Our protein draw was ground pork from Richardson Farms, which made me glad because I’ve visited Richardson Farms and I think they probably raise animals for food as honorably and sustainably as any commercial purveyor you could find in our area. We also had peanuts and sweet potatoes, which played perfectly into the only concept I had done advanced testing on – a roasted potato puree with peanut and lime – and which we were able to produce for the final dish. I had no plan for ground pork, however.

I did some research using ye olde iPhone and found a concept we could build on, with modifications. Chip and I got chopping, roasting, blending, pickling, browning, pureeing, and tasting. We spent a few good minutes finalizing the plating. All the while we bounced ideas off each other regarding flavors and pairings. Chip brought a tremendous confidence to the table with his knowledge of Latin cuisine that was invaluable. I remembered that no culinary effort at this scale is a one-man effort. In this kind of task, you’re better off finding support and using your collective knowledge to accomplish the mission. Chip was a great partner and I’m really glad to have worked with him (we also work together at Green Island Catering, a local vegan caterer and meals-to-go company).

I have to give big time credit to my wife, also. She listened to me whine about how nervous I was and told me to imagine myself winning. She’s been a great support through this whole culinary enterprise I’ve been on for the past several months.

Below: The scene at Papi Tino’s (Photo: Vess Consulting).

Big thanks to The Natural Epicurean for donating a big load of fresh produce to the competitors via Farm to Table. I felt like Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games getting help from unseen sponsors in her life or death match. We ended up using some limes and green leaf lettuce from that delivery. Of course it was all available to everyone and I’m sure the others made good use of it, also.

The prize for the victory is a 6-month contract to work at Papi Tino’s. It would be a great chance to continue my exploration of Mexican cooking. I’m not sure I have the time to make that happen, but just having the opportunity is nice .

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