Taste of Gainesville took place June 2 at the Hilton UF Conference Center. The main event at the fourth-annual fundraiser was an Iron Chef competition pitting two-time champion Briton Dumas of Embers Wood Grill against Patrick Jones of Gainesville Country Club and Ray Leung of Dragonfly Sushi. The three chefs each had one hour to prepare three courses incorporating the secret ingredient, Swamp Head beer. When the sun set on Gainesville’s very own Kitchen Stadium, judges (and Food Network alums) Madison Cowan, Joe Rego and Ivan Dorvil crowned Ray Leung Iron Chef Gainesville. We met up with Leung for a post-Iron Chef Q & A:
Q: Why did you decide to participate in the competition this year?
A: I’m not too big into competing against other chefs. As chefs, we enjoy working with each other so that we can learn and push each other to get better. But when I heard that we were competing to put an end to child abuse … I was in.
Q: What was your plan coming in?
A: You really can’t prepare too much for things like this, but we brought to the event what we thought would differentiate us. At the very least, we knew that the secret ingredient could not be a protein but something that would complement a protein.
We did a few practice rounds to be sure we didn’t look like fools on the day of the event (laughter).
Once we knew what the main ingredients were, we used the 30 minutes carefully to delegate specific duties. It helped that the Eastside High School culinary intern was extremely sharp. Then, once the event started, we stayed calm during the time pressure and constantly kept an eye on each other, giving encouragement throughout the short 60 minutes.
Q: Did anything about the competition surprise you?
A: I was surprised how well the Kitchen Stadium was laid out by Quality DesignWorks, very organized. This was my first time in any kind of cooking competition.
I was also surprised by how well the event was put together by the Home Magazine team, definitely one of the top events of the year in Gainesville. I was honored and privileged to be able to be a part of this huge charity event.
Q: What were your thoughts when they revealed the secret ingredient?
A: First thought was, “What the ($*@% ?)” I have never really cooked with beer. But I guess this is it, and then at that moment, ideas started to flow through my head. My afterthought once the event was over was, “I should have known.” After all, Gainesville is Swamp City, and Swamp Head Brewery is Gainesville to the core.
Q: Did you think it was difficult to incorporate?
A: Not really, just took the beer and tasted each one of them and started to come up with a game plan. Each beer had its own character and flavor profile. The most difficult part was preventing myself from drinking the beer during the competition, it was so good.
Q: What dishes did you make?
A: Appetizers: Savory Cotton Mouth-batter pancake, baked in a mini cast-iron [skillet] with organic sausage, shrimp, bell peppers and jalapeno, with spicy honey and yuzu whip. But now, looking back, I should have done something else, and I think I forgot to put eggs in the batter. Maybe I should’ve gone for the snapper and made a cheddar-beer soup, even though I have never made one before. I would’ve figured something out, but, oh well.
Entrée: Lightly seared wahoo with a Big Nose barbecue sauce, sautéed snap peas, bok choy, shiitake mushrooms and dashi-flavored Cotton Mouth rice with soy, shiitake and carrots.
Dessert: Harry Potter-inspired “butter-beer” (over 21 version). Midnight Oil sorbet with a peanut-laced crumble cookie, butterscotch sauce into the Midnight Oil beer (beer and peanut concept) and a side of butter-beer and yuzu whip foam to look like the foam of beer.
Q: What dish were you most proud of?
A: Baking and pastry is not my strong suit, but I guess the dessert dish. Never made a beer sorbet. The Midnight Oil was a great beer, being a stout, with a coffee and chocolate note. When butterscotch was mixed into make “butter-beer,” it was delicious.
The beer rice was surprisingly good also. I have never used beer to cook rice, and I have cooked my share of rice.
Q: Did you put any of them on your menu?
A: We actually did. We have a three-course tasting menu of all the Iron Chef dishes for a limited time to continue to help Tyler’s Hope, Children’s Home Society and Child Advocacy Center. But I did change up the appetizer dish and made it more custom to our style of food here at Dragonfly. It’s a Cotton Mouth-batter Okonomiyaki Japanese-style pancake with octopus, shrimp and bacon, topped with Japanese mayo, Japanese barbecue sauce, blue seaweed flakes and bonito flakes. (Would’ve done this for Iron Chef, but we had half the ingredients.)
Q: What feedback did you get from the judges?
A: In the analogy of a boxing match, the judges told me that the appetizer knocked me down, but the main course and the desserts got me back up to win the fight. In life, we all face a little defeat, but if you are passionate about something, you will get back up.
The appetizer course was a little too sweet, and I should have made the portion just slightly smaller. But they loved the dessert. Very creative and well balanced.
Seems like people give you flack for not being in the kitchen all the time, did that make the win extra sweet?
The win was sweet, and, yes, I am not in the kitchen as much as I used to be, but I’m always trying new things here and there and get my hands wet here and there. I now spend most of my days teaching and encouraging other members of our team to become future leaders. I get the most joy when I see my staff succeed together as a team. We did this as a team. The win goes out to all of our staff, even the ones who stayed behind at the restaurant to serve the guests who dined that evening.
Q: Was there any trash talk among the contestants?
A: No, just great words of encouragement. I loved working with them all. Would love to see how we can create more time to work with each other to push the culinary level of Gainesville. People say that Gainesville is a bit slow in terms of our food culture, but I would like to prove them wrong. I was very impressed with Chef Briton Dumas of Embers and Chef Patrick Jones from Gainesville Country Club.
Q: Will you return to defend your title?
A: I would be honored to. It doesn’t matter if I win or lose. In the end, this is a win-win event for the whole Gainesville community. There are too many kids in this community that do not get a chance to become who they are supposed to because of circumstances. It’s great that we’re working together as a community to do the right thing and using food to get to the heart of it all. I hope we get even more people involved next