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Stateside’s Sabatino Takes Philly Hop Chef Title

12 July 2012

It’s been a long road—weeks of tasting, cooking, testing, and Twitter trash talk lead to Tuesday night’s showdown at World Café Live as six of the hottest young chefs in Philadelphia battled for a coveted spot at Brewery Ommegang’s Belgium Comes to Cooperstown. Six chefs entered the competition—Joe Cicala of Le Virtu, Jon Cichon of LaCroix, Jason Cichonski of Ela, Nicholas Elmi of Rittenhouse Tavern, George Sabatino of Stateside and Scott Schroeder of South Philadelphia Tap Room and American Sardine Bar—but only one could claim victory and move on to Cooperstown in August to once again battle other winners from around the country.

The premise was simple: create two dishes to pair with Ommegang beers in one of five different categories—simple pairing, incorporation, mimicking, storytelling or experimental. The prestigious panel of judges—Art Etchells of Foobooz, Mat Falco of Philly Beer Scene, Top Chef All-Star Jen Carroll, former Meal Ticket editor Drew Lazor and Emilio Mignucci of DiBruno Bros.—would decide who would move on, though the audience would have a say in voting for the fan favorite.

Despite being overlooked for fan favorite (which went to Twitter superstar Scott Schroeder), Stateside’s George Sabatino won the judges voting with his delicious smoked beef cheek, pickled watermelon rind and beer-boiled peanuts, topped with a dash of smoked salt and wrapped in lettuce to be paired with the Abbey Ale.  This dish truly deserved to win; the savory, tender meat and its hint of smoke balanced perfectly with the tart watermelon rind pickle, and the lettuce wrap made it feel just a bit less indulgent.

Rittenhouse Tavern’s Nicholas Elmi took runner-up honors for his two pairings.  He had a hamachi and sea urchin with wheatgrass, citrus and coriander paired with Ommegang’s Witte, as well as a cheese and cherry pie with pistachio and lardo paired with Three Philosophers.  While the hamachi was good, the sea urchin was lost in the citric foam on top and the bitter wheatgrass—a shame for such a delicate and delectable ingredient.

Other standout dishes were Shroeder’s hot roast beef sandwich, which was strictly for the hardcore carnivores: a tender, dripping-with-gravy hunk of meat with a side of grainy mustard served open-faced style made the dish messy, but well worth the dry cleaning bill.  Jason Cichonski’s dessert, as well—an aged cheddar panna cotta with sour cherry chocolate and candied rye—stood out.  Any dessert that can not only harness a sweetness, but balance it with a savory taste of aged cheddar and mix it perfectly with chocolate, should be considered a winner.

The event only had a few hiccups throughout the night, one of which had nothing to do with the organizers—Cichonski ran out of his scallop dish (diver scallop filled with corn cream with chantrelle mushrooms and crunchy mustard) after only about an hour, which was unfortunate because it was a delicious dish and more people should’ve been able to try it.  The only other downside of the event was that Ommegang’s beer was available at two stations, and these stations were not necessarily close to the chefs’ tables.  With people crowding around to get food whenever it came out, this made trying the actual beer and food pairings prohibitive, so it was much easier just to pick a beer you liked and try to grab a dish of food when it came out.

Other than those two minor flaws, the event was extremely well-run and worth the ticket price.  There are many events nowadays that leave you wondering why you dropped $50+ on the price of entry, but this was not one of them.  Even though I don’t need to, I’ll be the one to say it: any time you can pair one of the top breweries in the country with six of the most talented and innovative chefs in Philadelphia, the disappointment level will be little-to-none.  The only problem now is getting up to New York to cheer on Sabatino as he represents Stateside and Philly in a competition that is sure to match, if not exceed, all that was experienced at World Café Live.

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