Mark Whitney knew the contest-winning dish he had in his head would work — Thai-inspired combination of coffee-dusted roasted chicken thighs smothered in peanut sauce, Thai chiles, lime, ginger, accompanied by a spinach sautée topped decadently with slivers of new potato fried in duck fat — but he didn’t know it would work this beautifully.
As a barista, he gets flavor. Combinations roll around in his head, marrying, divorcing, before they’re actualized in front of him through his work at Rêve Coffee Roasters. It would seem that the EatLafayette/INDEats powers-that-be agreed with his assessment, declaring the contents of his flavorful mind the winner of the annual Chef’s Table Experience hosted Aug. 3 at E’s Kitchen in Parc Lafayette.
His reward was a (likely) once-in-a-lifetime dinner with seven friends, mere feet across a horseshoe bar from the flashing knives and artistic prowess of five of the Lafayette’s most creative and bustling chefs. Jeremy Conner, who designed the four ingredient baskets from which contestants proposed their meals in an online contest, assembled an impressive cast of chefs and cooks, including Dark Roux’s Corey Bourgeois, Charley G’s Holly Goetting, E’s Kitchen’s Paul Ayo and Social’s Marc Krampe. That crew, and many more in their cohort, has been responsible for Lafayette’s culinary enlightenment over the past couple of years. Chef’s table events like this have popped around the city with Conner’s roving Humble Fish dinner, Ayo’s regular rotation of eat-and-learn classes at E’s Kitchen, to say nothing of the Runaway Dish charity dinner excursions to which most of these chefs lend their time and talents.
For one night, that elite cadre of hands was at the service of Whitney’s mind. They took what he envisioned and, according to Whitney, actualized his dinner concept into a meal beyond his imagination.
“They had prepared it much better than I ever could have,” says Whitney. “They took my idea and made into something realized. It was awesome.”
While the chefs more or less stuck to his cue, Whitney’s winning dish was but one of four served to him and his pals. That conviviality extended across the horseshoe bar into the friendly collaborations of the chefs, taking turns with courses, plating each other’s dishes, and geeking out over Bourgeois’ knack with liquid nitrogen. Conner’s summer soup of pureed squash set up Ayo’s shrimp Caesar salad, everyone pitched in on the reinvention of Whitney’s entrée, delighting him and his pals with a feisty interpretation of his peanut sauce as a peanut aoili. The meal capped with Bourgeois’ liquid nitrogen honey comb served with chocolate ganache and a butter cream gelato made with Conner’s own Cellar Sea Salt. The atmosphere was dining bliss among two sets of fast and eager friends.
“It says a lot about lafayette’s food community that they [the chefs] all seem to be really good friends with each other,” says Whitney.
Whitney and his gang were treated to the dinner experience complete with media fanfare. IND Media’s Cherry Fisher May welcomed and congratulated Whitney and his friends, also emphasizing to the crowd the importance of supporting locally owned restaurants and the efforts of local chefs, and City-Parish President Joey Durel made comments (CAO Dee Stanley was there, too). Whitney talked to KATC. But after the formalities of civic contests gave way, it got down to the food. And the booze. Lots of booze, provided by E’s Kitchen’s impressive wine selection, Bayou Teche Brewing, and media hour cocktails by Rank Wildcat Rum.
Whitney’s dirty secret, though, is he’s not really sure why he got picked.
“I’m not sure if I won because mine was the best or because my name was pulled out of a hat.”
It wasn’t random, but I’m sure that was an anxiety long forgotten at his first bite.
The Chef’s Table Experience is a centerpiece event of the ongoing EatLafayette campaign, set to wrap up Sept. 20.
View a photo gallery of the event here.