Anyone who has spent time inside the kitchen of a busy restaurant knows it's an inherently intense environment, with chefs and cooks of all calibers shuffling about in a kind of controlled chaos, hurrying to get dishes prepared, plated, and finally whisked away to the tables and mouths of hungry customers. Add to that already hectic scene an audience of hundreds, two emcees announcing each chef's every move, and a couple cameras transmitting the madness onto a large screen, with only fifteen minutes to execute a meal, and you have yourself the East Bay Food Fight — a live cooking competition pitting six prominent local chefs against one another in three one-on-one battles, their efforts assessed by a panel of celebrity judges.
This is the first year of the Iron Chef-style competition, a fundraiser for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County's Kitchen of Champions Culinary Training Program, which prepares unemployed or otherwise disadvantaged Bay Area residents for culinary careers. And if the smorgasbord of notable chefs and famous foodies on the bill is any indication, the East Bay restaurant scene from which the cook-off draws will yield some fierce competition. Some of the seven scheduled judges include Chez Panisse proprietor Alice Waters, Iron Chef judge Anya Fernald, and Gather restaurant's Sean Baker, voted Esquire's 2010 "Chef of the Year."
Competitors have already been paired off for the competition at Jack London Square Pavilion (98 Broadway, Oakland) on Saturday, July 23, with FIVE restaurant's Banks White cooking against Picán's Dean Dupuis, Rick Hackett of Bocanova battling Bellanico's Jonathan Luce, and À Côté's Matt Colgan contesting celebrity chef Nikki Shaw. Each duo will work within the confines of one of three culinary themes — "dinner date," "dessert nostalgia," or "summer picnic" — and must incorporate a secret ingredient into their swiftly assembled dishes.
Luce, whose restaurant recently hired a graduate from the Kitchen of Champions program, said that his quick knife skills should work to his advantage in the event's fast-paced, public atmosphere. But regardless of his culinary dexterity, the Bellanico chef said that fifteen minutes is a very small amount of time in which to conceive and cook a dish, especially on a stage surrounded by spectators and cameras. "I'm just hoping that I don't chop the tip of my finger off," he said, half-jokingly.
Event manager Michele Valenti Moore said that while the Food Fight is being publicized as a competition, it's meant to be more of a friendly contest. "We don't want the whole event to be based around the battle," she said. "We also want to showcase the restaurants." Tasting booths from more than forty local wineries, breweries, and eateries will be set up throughout the pavilion, along with culinary demonstrations and an auction offering bidders the opportunity to dine with Mayor Jean Quan (at her place or yours).
Luce said that in his seven years working in the Oakland the restaurant scene, the city's culinary climate has changed tremendously, and events like the Food Fight are good indications of that evolution. "The fact that there are even enough restaurants to have a competition like this is a major change," he said. 4:30-7:30 p.m., $35-$100. 510-636-4247 or EastBayFoodFight.org