Last month I got to attend a dinner quite unlike any I had attended. The Line RTA, a restaurant talent agency, has been quietly holding semi-regular cooking competitions since late last year. Line cooks from popular restaurants around town put their budding reputations on the line to compete against each other and be judged by respected chefs such as Bruce Kalman (Union), Jason Fullilove (Barbara Jean LA), and Ricardo Zarate (Rosaliné). The competitions are held at The Park Restaurant in Echo Park.
For the May competition, the contestants were line cooks William Pentecost (.ink), Juan Agustin (Olivella), and Shad Newton (Trois Mec). The judges were none other than chefs Evan Funke (Felix), Vartan Abgaryan (71 Above), and Ben Ford (Ford Filling Station). The cooks have to put out two dishes each to the three judges and 40 or so guests. Dessert is provided by The Park. It works out to a seven-course meal for $52, a fabulous deal if it could be found at any of the above-mentioned chefs’ restaurants, but would what these young line cooks make be worth our while?
First up was William Pentecost, who served two bold-looking dishes: raw scallops with foam and nori and hanger steak topped with enoki hay. .ink is known for dishes that incorporate molecular gastronomy, and certainly William’s dishes seem to take the most risks. Not all of it worked, the foam for example, but the enoki hay was a definite highlight for me!
Next was Juan Agustin, who put out two rather more refined-looking plates: a gnocchi and morels dish and a duck breast with spring vegetables. Juan’s dishes paired classic ingredients together–pasta and mushrooms, duck with a sweet sauce–but executed at a very high level.
Last was Shad Newton, who served two deceptively-simple looking dishes: an asparagus salad and a Santa Maria-style tri-tip. The salad was actually quite complex with Shad trying to do a deconstructed sauce gribiche, with a very interesting smoked egg yolk, but the components didn’t “reconstruct” too well on the plate. The tri-tip was a bit tough for me, but salt-baked potatoes were a crowd favorite.
The most interesting part of the competition was when the judges gave their feedback openly to each cook after tasting each of their two courses. All three judges were quite honest and tough with their criticism, but Evan was definitely a little more Simon Cowell. But the comments were also fair and, more importantly, very constructive, and when they complimented the aspects the line cooks did well, you could tell it really meant something to them.
The judges actually tied in trying to determine a winner, and it came down to William Pentecost and Juan Agustin. In the end, by audience vote, Juan Agustin took top spot. The prize? A $250 check, a bottle of liquor, and bragging rights! The judges applauded all three cooks for putting themselves out there–Evan said he wouldn’t have had the confidence to do what they did, and wouldn’t have put out dishes as well conceived, when he was at the same stage of his career.
If this sounds like an interesting way to spend an evening, The Line RTA is hosting its next competition on Monday, June 27th. The judges this time around are Wes Avila (Guerrilla Tacos), Eddie Ruiz (Corazon y Miel), and Matt Wilson (Augustine Wine Bar). The competitors are David Bowles (The Bellwether), Oscar Molina (NeueHouse), and Marcos Guillen (A.O.C.). Find out what each are serving, and how to get in on the fun, here: http://thelinerta.com/events