By Danielle Haynes
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — Beginning Feb. 24, Artisan Kitchens & Baths in Buffalo will play host to the who’s who of Western New York chefs for the fifth season of the Nickel City Chef competition.
For those unfamiliar with the event, Nickel City Chef is roughly based on the “Iron Chef” competition on the Food Network. Each competition features one existing Nickel City Chef — who holds the title until they decide to retire — and one challenging chef. Both must represent a Western New York restaurant and must have a strong culinary background.
“We choose who we think would fare best in the competition,” NCC founder Christa Glennie Seychew said of the selection process. “We would never want to put someone in who would not perform as well as the Nickel City Chef.”
The two chefs — and their sous chefs — square off in front of a live audience and must create three dishes based on one secret, locally sourced ingredient. They have one hour to complete the three dishes and serve them to a panel of judges. The chef who has the best score wins bragging rights and perhaps an increase in business at their respective restaurant.
This year marks the fifth season of NCC and only the second time a Niagara County chef will be taking the stage with the addition of Jason LaMotte, of The Conference & Event Center in Niagara Falls.
“Having Jason this year is great,” said Seychew, explaining that the selection committee was impressed that he had worked with celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay and won a coveted Michelin Star while working in Europe.
“Coupled with this idea he has of trying to integrate food from Niagara County farms into the convention center menu,” Seychew said LaMotte seemed like an interesting choice to pit against NCC Brian Mietus of Bacchus.
“They’re both very classically trained,” Seychew said, adding that the two are matched both in style and execution.
For his part, LaMotte said he’s looking forward to his March 24 showdown against Mietus, especially after competing in the NCC Firing Line competition (akin to the Food Network’s “Chopped) a few months ago.
“There’s a whole lot of people applying for the competition,” LaMotte said. “It’s definitely a surprise and an honor to get picked.”
LaMotte said he plans to show off his background as a chef in New Orleans, but mostly wants the ingredients to stand for themselves. In the end he’s not overly concerned with winning or losing.
“Less is more. If I have carrots, I want them taste like carrots,” he said. “The fundamentals of cooking is what people have gotten away from, like proper knife cuts.”
“I’m just hoping to perform the best I can and hopefully don’t embarrass myself,” he added.
Meanwhile, Feb. 24 will pit friend against friend in the competition between JJ Richert — who together with his brother and competition sous chef, Kevin, are chef owners of Kenmore’s Torches and the City of Tonawanda’s Smoke on the Water — and Ristorante Lombardo’s Michael Obarka.
“I’m going to be able to take on one of the best chefs in Buffalo,” Obarka said, admitting he’s a pretty competitive person.
“It’s not really daunting, because I’ve known JJ since we were both thin and young,” he added with a laugh.
Richert said that because he knows Obarka’s techniques so well — “he doesn’t really go for a lot of flashy type things,” he said — he’s planning well in advance how to take on the competition.
“I think we’ll definitely have to make a pasta from scratch, or something along those lines,” he said.
Richert said he and sous chef Kevin always push the limits of what they normally cook and what they can finish in the amount of time given.
“We don’t play it safe,” he said.
In previous years they made a sorbet with a red wine caviar garnish inside 16 minutes and they cooked octopus in a pressure cooker within the 60 minute time limit. These dishes normally require a long preparation or cooking process that they managed to streamline using different techniques.
Seychew described Richert as a flashier chef, someone who embraces the concept of showmanship while cooking in the NCC competitions, while Obarka is more of a “blue collar, salt-of-the-earth guy.”
“Richert really understands that his personality is a big factor and that showmanship is a major component to being a successful celebrity chef,” she said. Meanwhile, “Obarka is very dedicated chef, who makes nearly everything from scratch. That is really to be admired because it means the chef cares about the quality of every ingredient he’s using, not just the final product.”
The two are evenly matched, she said, but bring two different perspectives to the table.
Obarka admits his more “rustic, masculine style” might prove to be a hinderance since most of what he cooks isn’t meant to be done in an hour.
“So I’m going to have to get creative,” he said.
And it’s because of that creativity on display at events like NCC that perhaps the chefs of Western New York are recently becoming more recognized.
“We didn’t really have chefs — besides Mike A. (Andrzejewski) — who anyone in the general public could spot,” Seychew said of the Buffalo restaurant scene 10 years ago. “Restaurants could change chefs 20 times in a year.
“Today we have chef-driven restaurants and Nickel City Chef has been a part of that. If people could buy a Bobby Flay or Rachel Ray cookbook, why wouldn’t they been interested in who’s cooking their food down the street?” she added.
There will be four competitions in the 2013 season of NCC. In addition to the Richert vs. Obarka challenge Feb. 24 and the Mietus vs. LaMotte challenge March 24, Nickel City chef Jennifer Boye of Mansion on Delaware Avenue will take on challenging Chef Teddy Bryant of Lloyd Taco Trucks on March 10, and Nickel City chef Adam Goetz of Sample will take on challenging Chef Edward Forster of Mike A @Hotel Lafayette on April 14.
For more information about Nickel City Chef, and to learn the results of this season’s competitions, visit www.nickelcitychef.com.NICKEL CITY CHEF 2013 SCHEDULE • Feb. 24 -- Nickel City chef JJ Richert of Torches and Smoke on the Water vs. challenging chef Michael Obarka of Ristorante Lombardo • March 10 -- Nickel City chef Jennifer Boye of Mansion on Delaware Avenue vs. challenging Chef Teddy Bryant of Lloyd Taco Trucks • March 24 -- Nickel City chef Brian Mietus of Bacchus vs. challenging Chef Jason LaMotte of Global Spectrum, The Conference & Event Center in Niagara Falls • April 14 -- Nickel City chef Adam Goetz of Sample vs. challenging Chef Edward Forster of Mike A @Hotel Lafayette Contact features editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 4116.