Palm Springs Area Chefs Battle For Title

Top Chefs Flex Culinary Muscle For Grand Prize

Marissa Willman Attractions, Restaurants 0 Comments

Wielding knives, whisks and saucepans, two local chefs turned a local fixtures store into a battleground as they faced off for prizes and bragging rights during the fourth installment of the Crater Lakes Chef Challenge in Rancho Mirage.

The eight-week competition transforms the demonstration kitchen at Fixtures Living into an “Iron Chef”-style culinary arena, where two local chefs are pitted against each other as onlookers stake out spots at the counter to snag a sample.

KDES 98.5 FM and MIX 100.5 FM provide the emcees and music, while Rio Azul Mexican Bar and Grill provides appetizers and Crater Lake offers vodka and gin samples. Throughout the event, guests enter to win door prizes like San Diego Zoo tickets and restaurant gift certificates. Guests also have a shot at grand prizes, including a two-night stay in Sedona and a Big Green Egg grill.

The rules to the chef challenge are simple: each chef must create an entree and a dessert or appetizer in one hour using Crater Lake vodka or gin. Celebrity judges from local media and restaurants give each chef points based on taste, creativity, fusion, technique and appearance.

For this round: Chef Anthony Santucci of Capri Restaurant in Desert Hot Springs and Chef Matt Lehman of Stuft Pizza in La Quinta went toe-to-toe.

Both Santucci and Lehman honed their culinary skills while spending decades in the restaurant industry. Santucci, whose grandparents owned Capri Restaurant for 35 years, says he practically grew up in the kitchen. He combined his real-world experience with culinary courses at College of the Desert and is now the executive chef at Capri.

Lehman says he took his first restaurant job at age 15, working every position except chef over a 20-year period in the industry. He made the move to become a chef about two years ago while working at Stuft Pizza.

“If you work in the restaurant business for 20 years, (cooking) is part of your life,” Lehman said. “But I still cringe when people call me a chef.”

Ready for competition, Lehman originally planned on making sea bass tacos with hand-rolled tortillas and salsa.

“I wanted to let it marinate for a day since salsa is always better the next day,” Lehman said.

But a pre-competition trip to scope out the kitchen forced him to scrap his taco plans. Just days before the showdown, he learned that not only did his dish have to be created entirely onsite, but the kitchen lacked a fryer for his taco shells. He also didn’t know the competition called for two dishes.

Lehman had to start from scratch.

“I haven’t slept in the last week and a half,” he said.

The Stuft Pizza chef decided to stick with sea bass, poaching the filets with a gin and juice twist – taking a cue from a recent rap hit single, “Gin and Juice,” Lehman named his dish, “Snoop Lion Sea Bass.”

To compliment the sea bass, Lehman opted for a chilled appetizer of lobster poached in pepper vodka, served with asparagus, cucumber, carrots, chives, avocado and spicy mayo.

He also drew attention for his smoking hot screw, a shooter made with pepper vodka, orange juice, and dry ice.

Meanwhile, Santucci put a fresh twist on surf and turf with his grilled pork tenderloin and seafood pasta.

He marinated the pork tenderloin in hazelnut espresso vodka and cooked it on an outdoor grill. He served the tenderloin with Asian coleslaw made of jicama, cucumber, sesame oil and rice wine vinegar, and topped the dish with mango salsa made with pepper vodka.

For his second dish, Santucci prepared Fettuccine topped with scallops, clams, mussels, prawns and a cream sauce.

While the “Iron Chef”-esque competition didn’t throw any surprise ingredients at its chefs, they were thrown a curve ball when the induction burners went out mid-competition.  Despite the technical difficulties, both chefs proved they were pros, putting the finishing touches on their dishes just as time ran out.

As the judges made their decisions, those who staked out their spots by the counter early enjoyed the payoff as the chefs handed out dozens of sample plates.

Which chef walked away one step closer to the title of Crater Lakes Master Chef? Watch the video below for the results:


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By a slim 5-point lead, Lehman was declared the winner for his “Snoop Lion” sea bass and chilled lobster stack. In addition to his cash prize, Lehman will compete in the semi-finals for his shot at the grand prize package, which includes a weekend trip to Bend, Ore., to visit the Crater Lakes distillery and a $5,000 advertising package. The winner will also be featured on the cover of the Crater Lakes Chef Challenge cookbook.

Kathy Schriefer, who handles regional promotions for Crater Lake Vodka, was inspired to coordinate a local chef competition after a friend used Crater Lake’s pepper vodka in his recipe for a chili cook-off.

The chili — served in martini glasses — was a hit, and Schriefer wondered what culinary creations the valley’s top chefs might concoct with pepper- or hazelnut espresso-flavored vodka.

So far, it’s inspired unique creations such as Bloody Mary halibut and gin and tonic cupcakes. After seeing the success of this event, Schriefer hopes the Crater Lakes Chef Challenge will become an annual event.

“This is more than just a bite of Palm Springs,” Schriefer said. “It’s fun for the people and it’s fun for the chefs.”

Chef challenges will be held each Wednesday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. through Oct. 3.  The eight winning chefs will return for semi-finals, and the final two chefs will compete in the final showdown later this year. For more information and schedule updates, visit the Crater Lakes Chef Challenge website.

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