Chef Showdown at Vegas Uncork’d makes a splash

Call it an edible gauntlet: two chefs, two courses, two ostensibly secret ingredients. It’s a formula that has worked for TV’s Iron Chef, Chopped and other culinary Olympics. With that in mind, chefs Akira Back of Bellagio’s Yellowtail and Martin Heierling of Bellagio’s Sensi recently stepped up to the stoves in Vegas’ own kitchen stadium (otherwise known as Bellagio’s Tuscany Kitchen) for Chef Showdown during the fifth annual Vegas Uncork’d culinary weekend by Bon Appétit.

“Whoever loses doesn’t have a restaurant anymore!” joked Bellagio director of wine and master sommelier Jason Smith as the ingredients were revealed to the audience of culinary enthusiasts. Course 1 offered the chefs their choice of scallops: bay, diver, giant, smoked, Taylor Bay and more. Course 2 would pit chef against chef to create a mushroom dish. At their disposal, a wide selection of mushrooms including trumpet, royal, enoki and truffles.

“My philosophy on food is keep it simple,” Heierling said. Guests happily tucked into his Southeast-style seared scallop with tamarind, ginger, lime juice and compressed pineapple. The pineapple was marinated in the first wine course, Eroica 2009 by Chateau St. Michelle & Dr. Loosen.

Meanwhile, Back borrowed a lighter from a guest to ignite his “smoking gun,” infusing thin slices of scallop with the essence of smoke. His dish—a house-made grilled corn tortilla with sriracha aoli and sliced seviche-style Yukon and Boston scallops topped with micro cilantro, shaved red onion, yuzu, white truffle oil and Maldon salt—was a big and spicy hit.

On the mushroom course, Heierling put forth a roasted, bacon-wrapped rabbit loin and Parisian-style gnocchi with mushrooms and vegetables. He also used mushroom “tea” to make the gnocchi and the sauce. Chef Back presented an homage to moss—a bright green sauce of chive, basil and spinach with olive oil. On the plate, five mushrooms each received a special treatment: pickled shimeji, sautéed oyster and morels, a grilled porcini and grilled portabella in fried phyllo.

“When I travel I try to eat very simple things,” Back said. While his dish looked anything but simple, the flavors were easy to access and heightened by the wine, a 2007 Antinori Tignanello.

All too soon it was time to vote—green grapes in the bucket for Heierling, red for Back. It had already been decided between Smith, and his co-emcee, Bon Appétit restaurant and drinks editor Andrew Knowlton, that the loser would have to take a dip in front of the Bellagio. In the end, Yellowtail’s Akira Back claimed victory, 49 to 26. So if chef Heierling should be missing from the Sensi kitchen this week, look for him frolicking in the Bellagio fountains.

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