Robb Report’s New Culinary Master for 2015
With a "good little menu" chef Nick Badovinus puts his brand on modern Texas cuisine. To view each chef’s full competition menu and recipes—as well as additional photos and videos—go to robbreport.com/culinarymasters.
“We’ll never be the edge of the wedge,” chef Nick Badovinus says as gallons of grits bubble on the hotel kitchen’s range. “That’s not who we are. And we’re not going to win. But we are going to have fun tonight.”
Badovinus, the charismatic chef and owner of the four Neighborhood Services restaurants in Dallas, is in the thick of preparations for the third annual Robb Report Culinary Masters Competition. As the grits simmer, slivers of shaved ham and a bowl of pimiento cheese spread sit on the counter, waiting to be assembled into appetizers. Three of his cooks attend to other elements on the menu, including Voodoo Sauce, a concoction he learned from Emeril Lagasse that involves cooking down a gallon of Crystal hot sauce and a gallon of Worcestershire sauce into a potent, eye-watering base. “It might be used as Louisiana embalming fluid, too,” Badovinus jokes.
The mood in the kitchen is so loose, the menu so familiar and nostalgic, it seems impossible that this is Badovinus’s first culinary competition and that in a couple of hours, he will be serving a five-course meal to 55 judges at the Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage, in Southern California. Badovinus is one of five rising stars vying for the title of New Culinary Master for 2015. Every year, Robb Report assembles a panel of renowned master chefs and challenges each to name the culinary world’s most promising newcomer. This year’s panel—David Bouley, Dean Fearing, Pierre Gagnaire, Nancy Oakes, and Wolfgang Puck—singled out chefs from San Francisco to Los Angeles, Tokyo to the South of France. One of these chefs has already earned a Michelin star and almost all of them work in a culinary idiom that involves liquid nitrogen, tweezers, foraging, or all of the above.
Almost all of them. Badovinus—as he explains, while “feeding” the grits with butter and agitating them to build a velvety richness—is more concerned with what he calls “everyday food” and stirring emotions at the table. “You cook for your audience,” he says. “So we gravitate to the naturally big and robust flavors.”
Badovinus’s competition menu aims for the bull’s-eye of pleasure, with such dishes as pan-fried quail legs paired with a tangy buttermilk-ranch salad, and a steak so intensely beefy it is an ode to Texas itself. Badovinus and his team arrived three days earlier, lugging containers filled with ingredients from his home state—“specialty stuff that’s more reflective of what we do in Dallas today,” he says. His Texas pantry includes fresh stone-ground grits from Homestead Gristmill in Waco and a creamy 4-year-old cheddar from Veldhuizen Texas Farmstead Cheese in Dublin. But the ingredient that confers the most bragging rights is the 28-day dry-aged Rosewood wagyu beef, from a ranch near Dallas. Badovinus will serve the beef in his fourth course: towering 3-inch-thick tenderloins with Voodoo Sauce in a rowdy spin on steak Diane. “Rosewood beef has a really, really delicate texture, and super, super flavor,” he says. “Wagyu is usually a little ribald—overly fatty, just not quite beef—but this is phenomenal.”
Across the prep table, one of his chefs is working on the dessert, using a pastry brush to gently whisk away the crumbs from a batch of pink sugar-wafer cookies—apparently a high-flown remake of a childhood favorite. But Badovinus is surprised by the notion. “No!” he says. “At $2.16 a pack, who can make them any better?” Indeed, the cookies came from a grocery-store aisle: a huge gamble in a serious culinary competition, but one calculated to add a fun twist to his elegant butterscotch pot de crème. Plus, the wafers do remind Badovinus of his childhood.
“Food is like that. It has a romanticism to it that is not all about being on the edge of the wedge,” he says. “Romanticism, and a connection to people—that’s the secret sauce for us. I believe that tapping into the past is equally as powerful as looking toward the future.”
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