At Under 30 Food Face-Off, Local Flavors Dominate While Duck And Goat Win The Night

By | October 5, 2015


L-R: Jason Pfeifer, JJ Johnson, Kelvin Fernandez, John Lasater, Jesse Schenker, Giorgio Rapicavoli, Aditi Malhotra, Christopher Coombs and Jeff Mahin. Credit: Glen Davis for FORBES.

L-R: Jason Pfeifer, JJ Johnson, Kelvin Fernandez, John Lasater, Jesse Schenker, Giorgio Rapicavoli, Aditi Malhotra, Christopher Coombs and Jeff Mahin. (Credit: Glen Davis for FORBES.)

Huitlacoche hush puppies. Apple pie truffles. And a chicken-liver reuben sandwich with a broccoli cheddar soup on the side.

These were just three of the nine formidable entries in the second annual Under 30 Food Festival and competition. Presented Sunday evening under the glass barrel-dome of Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center by nine chefs who have already earned spots on the Forbes Under 30 list, each of the competing dishes was worthy of acclaim. But ultimately, only two could prevail: a duck-confit grilled cheese and tomato soup from Christopher Coombs won the audience vote, and a goat dumpling piri piri with micro cilantro from Joseph “JJ”  Johnson was the judges’ choice for the evening.

“JJ took a pedestrian dish like dumplings and blew our minds,” said Forbes editor Randall Lane, who served as a judge for the cook-off alongside Taylor and Isaac Hanson. He went on to call Coombs’ grilled cheese “an amped up take on comfort food. People devoured it!”

Neither of the winning dishes can be found at Johnson or Coombs’ restaurants; like many of the other chefs in the cook-off, they wanted to offer something fresh. This meant balancing their own tastes with their calculations of what the crowd would want.

“I’m known for my oxtail dumpling but I brought goat,” Johnson said, explaining that he wanted to make something exclusive while also bringing a sense of the Afro-Asian flavors that influence his cooking at The Cecil. Coombs, on the other hand, took careful notes at the inaugural Under 30 Summit and crafted a plate that would appeal to conference attendees.

“I came up with this dish as a result of the crowd last year,” he said. “I’m known for duck, and it’s a balance of what I do and what they want to eat.”

Though competitions, by nature, must declare winners, the overwhelming consensus from judges and conference attendees alike was that choosing one dish above the rest was a near impossible task.

“We call this the competition to find the best young chef in America but I think we have the best nine young chefs in America,” Lane said of the cook-off lineup. “Truth be told, there wasn’t a dud in the house,” added judge Isaac Hanson.

JJ Johnson's winning dish: a goat dumpling piri piri with micro cilantro. (Photo credit: Glen Davis for FORBES.)

In the eyes of judge Taylor Hanson, all of the competing plates were united by their reverence for their roots. “We had influences of Mexican, Cuban; we had French, we had a little bit of Japanese, we had all these good southern foods, we had a little bit of African and Southeast Asian,” he said of the dishes presented.  “There were very different, distinct approaches here, but where they’re all connected is they’re very respectful of where they came from.”

An unscientific poll of conference attendees found similar levels of indecision. For every person who cited Coombs’ grilled cheese as his or her favorite, there was another who pointed to the deconstructed bacon, egg and cheese from Recette chef (and 2014 Food Festival champion) Jesse Schenker; Jeff Mahin’s shellfish angel hair dumpling spiced pork, shellfish, uni, black bean and chili; John Lasater’s hot chicken; or Kelvin Fernandez’s crispy arepa with steak, lime-scented sour cream, guacamole, pico de gallo and cotija cheese.

“It’s all so good, but the squid ink dumpling [was my favorite] because it’s such a novel format,” said Sarah Unger, a member of the 2015 30 Under 30 marketing list. “It takes some real craftsmanship.”

For Nomiku CEO (and 30 Under 30 Class of 2015) Lisa Fetterman, the huitlacoche hush puppy from Giorgio Rapicavoli was a standout. “It was very, very elegant,” she said. “It had the most flavor, restraint and playfulness.”

And Amelie Mariage, an Aprendices Visuales co-founder who flew in from France just for the conference, called Aditi Malhotra’s chocolate-covered Cocoa Puffs “a revelation; they would be great with a glass of Champagne.”

Even among the competitors, there was congeniality. In fact, more than congeniality: after the trophy presentation, winners Johnson and Coombs revealed they are among the other’s biggest cheerleaders.

“I lost my voice! When Chis won I was like, ‘YEAH YEAH YEAH!’” exclaimed Johnson, adding that he thought Coombs would win the judges’ trophy, too. “And then my name got announced and it was like, I wouldn’t want to sit next to anyone else.” 

“It’s a very special day because JJ and I have been friends since we were 18 years old, at the Culinary Institute of America, Class of 2004,” said Coombs. “We’ve done a lot of cooking together, and to win together today is very, very special.”