All the big-name chefs were there. From the big-name restaurants with the big kitchens and the big dining rooms.
But when the judges selected the winning dish and removed their blindfolds at the Battle of the Beach: Chef Cook Off last Thursday, the seared 5-ounce petite filet mignon topped with pistachio duxelle and seared jumbo scallops, atop sweet and spicy pickled onions and anajou pears and a crimini mushroom, fresh pea and roasted corn ragu, on their plates had been prepared by Executive Chef Jason Bostaph of Café 26 — a 12-table restaurant in Ocean View.
“We’re such a tiny restaurant. This is awesome that we’re running with the big dogs,” said Café 26 owner Maria Fraser. “That was a big affair.”
The competition, in the style of the Food Network show “Chopped,” was held at the The Ivy restaurant in Dewey Beach on Thursday, Sept. 18. It benefitted Meals on Wheels Delaware and featured some of the top chefs in the area.
But for Bostaph and Café 26, despite celebrating the restaurant’s fifth anniversary this summer, it was their first taste of head-to-head competition.
“Really, it was our first cooking competition,” Bostaph explained. “We knew we were going up against some good chefs, and we just went into it by trying to be as prepared as possible, so that regardless of what came out of that mystery basket, we’d have some fresh produce and spices to prepare with it.”
The “mystery basket” included five different ingredients given to each chef in the Cook Off, to combined with their own produce and spices from their respective restaurants. When it was finally revealed, Bostaph, Fraser and sous chef Jimmy Cooper found themselves with hanger steak, chili paste, hominy, raw eggs and prickly pear juice.
“I was relatively comfortable with everything there except the prickly pear juice,” Bostaph explained of his initial thoughts after the unveiling of the mystery basket’s contents. “The other things were mostly savory ingredients. The prickly pear juice was kind of like the wildcard. It threw me through a loop for a few minutes.”
But much like he does every night at Café 26, Bostaph set out to create something new out of what he had to work with.
“He brings all this creativity,” explained Fraser. “That’s why I love him so much — he just creates these phenomenal dishes every day. We just order fresh every day, and I just let him create. It’s been very successful. He is very talented.”
Even with the prickly pear juice to figure in, it wasn’t long before Bostaph had a plan.
“Jason looked at the five ingredients, and all of a sudden he said, ‘This is exactly what we’re gonna make,’” Fraser said. “I started doing the scallops, Jimmy started chopping all the fruits and Jason started all his different sauces — he cooked right there on the stage. It was amazing how he did it.”
And after it was all seared, sautéed and plated, the end result was a first-place award for the Café 26 team.
“It was definitely a tense moment, standing there, waiting to see what was gonna come out of that basket. But it’s like any competition — you get yourself ready,” Bostaph said. “I went into it knowing that I had the skill set to win. I knew that I was going up against some good competition, but I wanted to win.”
Winning the event qualified Bostaph and the Café 26 team for the Celebrity Chef Beach Brunch on Sunday, Oct. 4, at the Rusty Rudder in Dewey Beach. It’s there that Bostaph will face his next challenge and go head-to-head with The Ivy chef Aileen Delario.
“We just want to go into it as prepared as possible,” Bostaph said. “We do this every day — try to be as creative as we can in the restaurant. I go into the restaurant every day, and I make up specials — that’s kinda what chefs do.”
For tickets to the CCBB, which will also benefit Meals on Wheels Delaware, visit http://mealsonwheelsde.org/2015/05/2015-ccbb-tickets/. For more on Café 26, visit the restaurant’s website at www.thecafeon26.com.