“This is a ‘back-door only’ situation,” said the tall bearded guy outside Maribelle’s Eat + Drink, motioning around the side of the restaurant.
Once inside, the dining room—generally closed on Mondays—was a sea of people, jam-packed for the restaurant’s second-ever Food Fight competition. Hosted and emceed by Maribelle’s chef Mike Florea as a kind of social mixer for the city’s food-focused minds, those in attendance dropped $10 at the door to spectate or $15 if they wanted to compete. Fifteen of the latter group ultimately participated, with fourteen total names drawn—Josh Campbell of Lavomatic, back to defend his title earned in the first event, was automatically included—and divided into two sets of three chefs and three sets of three judges.
Separated into three rounds, the first round of chefs were presented with matching baskets of five surprise (and often wacky) ingredients, then given 30 minutes to create a dish for the judges. The second round followed suit, and the two winning chefs faced off in the final round. It’s essentially a combination of Food Network’s Chopped and the movie Fight Club. The only difference is that it isn’t edited down to an hour, and Brad Pitt wasn’t walking around shirtless. (Though at one point, somebody did scream, “Oh, what’s in the box?!?”)
The crowd was an eclectic mix—chefs, mustache-sporting hipsters, foodie east-side parents toting around their toddlers—all munching on the potluck-style grub attendees were encouraged to bring and throwing back cans of MadTree beer. Plenty of other local establishments pitched in as well, with Northern Haserot, Carriage House Farm, Butcher Betties, Napoleon Ridge Farm, Reinhert Foodservice, Brooks Meats, and Avril Bleh & Sons all donating food for the competition.
The first round featured baskets containing whole crawfish, chuck-eye steak, British fruit cake, Chinese bittermelon, special crab chips, and fresh sumac, as well as an upset, with line cook Drew Fisher from Metropole dethroning Campbell. Round two—extra soft tofu, dried mango, white Zinfandel (“It was on sale at Jungle Jim’s.”), hybrid striped bass, frog legs, and apple butter—went to Virgil’s Matt Buschle.
The Cinderella story continued in round three, as Fisher topped Buschle with his basket of boar rack, chorizo, bamboo worms (the hell?), melba sauce, Kabocha squash, and vegan Monterey Jack cheese (THE HELL???), taking home the beautiful Trophy Knife crafted by Chris Weist of Cincy Sharp.
The judges’ verdict on Fisher’s winning round: “We’d pay to eat this again.”
In the culinary world, there’s no higher honor.