Chef Dayne Womax of Brown Butter Southern Kitchen and Bar barely had a chance to survey the competition at Gambit's Emerging Chef's Challenge July 8 at The Cannery.
"We were the first table, right by the door, so we were busy from the get-go," Womax says.
He and his team served a popular dish from their restaurant's regular menu: vinegar-braised boneless beef short rib over stone-ground yellow grits topped with arugula salad and fried shallots.
More than 500 attendees sampled dishes from a dozen chefs and cast ballots for their favorite. The dishes ranged from hearty comfort food items to regional classics such as chef Ryan Hughes' Louisiana adaptation of Lowcountry she-crab soup to more exotic fare. Chef Daniel Causgrove of The Grill Room at the Windsor Court composed a sampling of bites including watermelon, watermelon gelee, ginger-glazed pork belly, blue crab, mint and chilies. Sara Toth of Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse combined sweet and savory elements in beef cheek cannoli dusted with marrow powder.
Cibugnu's Nick Vella served pecan-smoked red snapper crudo with tomato water and snapper cracklings. Chris Shortall from Beachbum Berry's Latitude 29 served short ribs with coconut rice and herbs in miniature Chinese food take-out boxes.
When the votes were tallied, Womax's short rib dish earned him the trophy and a $1,000 cash prize.
"We didn't expect to win," he says. "We were talking about the next night's specials when they called our name. It was awesome."
Womax chose to highlight the type of cooking he does at Brown Butter, which focuses on Southern dishes, or Southern ingredients in reworked dishes, such as a Korean-style approach to pork belly and oysters served with collard green kimchi. Though he grew up in LaPlace, Womax wanted his restaurant to stand apart from the abundance of Cajun and Creole restaurants. Before opening Brown Butter last year, he and a couple partners had been planning to open a gastropub, which they developed as the supper club The Salty Swine. When one of the partners took a job with a hotel restaurant, Womax and Simon Beck opened Brown Butter in Mid-City.
Chef Brad Andries of Sac-a-Lait won second place for braised duck tongue and chanterelle mushroom confit with local goat cheese and summer sweet potato grits. Duck tongues are an uncommon ingredient, and given their size, not easy to butcher. But Andries wanted to do something adventurous that reflected his approach at Sac-a-Lait, the Warehouse District restaurant that opened in March.
"We wanted to do something unique but stay true to ourselves," he says. "It's a braised dish. ... You have to confit the mushrooms, add the duck tongues ... and I used a duck stock."
Sac-a-Lait is named for the small fish, aka white perch or crappie, that are common in fishing waters around Baton Rouge, where Andries grew up. At the restaurant, Andries takes a refined approach to rustic ingredients and dishes.
"It's what we grew up hunting and fishing," he says. "It's putting that bounty on a plate."
At Sac-a-Lait, the menu rangesfrom deviled crab and fried quail to oyster spaghetti using mustard green vermicelli and sausagelike duck chaudin, made with house-cured bacon.
Toth, who is Chef de Cuisine at Dickie Brennan's, was looking for a less common piece of beef to work into a dish. She chose to use beef cheeks in a cannoli topped with bordelaise reduction and marrow powder mixed with confectioners sugar.
"One man looked at it and said, 'Oh, I'll be back for dessert,'" Toth says.
Guests liked the dish, and it won third place in the competition.
Toth has worked at Dickie Brennan Restaurant Group kitchens for 10 years, starting at Palace Cafe. She took an early interest in baking bread, and she spent five years as the pastry chef at Bourbon House before moving to the steakhouse, where she became chef de cuisine. For wine dinners at the steakhouse, she has mixed sweet and savory elements and created dishes similar to the beef cheek cannoli.
"I like to keep things playful," Toth says. "This is a chance to stretch your legs and do something a little different."