Written by James Creange.
Photos by Honey Russell.
Fort Worth Magazine’s 2019 Top Chef Challenge was a great success with Jenna Kinard (97 West Kitchen and Bar, Hotel Drover) taking home the top prize as this year’s top chef.
The Challenge, which took place on September 25th at River Ranch Stockyards, pitted Kinard against Kobi Perdue (Paris 7th), Keith Hicks (The Rim), and Max Zubboli (Zeno’s on the Square) in four separate competitions that tested each chef’s taste buds, improvisation, time management, and other important kitchen skills.
Judging each competition were three previous Top Chef winners, Bria Downey (2018), Stefon Rishel (2015) and Anthony Felli (2013). Jon Bonnell was the lead judge for the event and presided over the festivities with the help of multi-Emmy Award winning broadcast journalist and television sports anchor Scott Murray.
The first event of the night was a taste test. Bonnell created a molé sauce that had 13 ingredients in it, and each chef was then required to go around in a circle and name an ingredient from the sauce after taking just one taste from it. One point was awarded per ingredient named.
This event created a unique challenge for Max Zubboli, a native Italian that moved to Texas in 2017. Not only did he have to know what ingredients were used in the sauce, he had to also know how to say their names in English.
“I was very nervous,” Zubboli said. “I had never done something like that before, and I was afraid that I couldn’t find or remember any English ingredient names.”
Unfortunately for Zubboli all of this culminated in a first round exit as he guessed wrong with paprika. Jenna Kinard faired better by lasting until the third round, and Keith Hicks and Kobi Perdue made it through the competition without naming an incorrect ingredient.
As the next competition began, there was laughter throughout the crowd when Jon Bonnell walked onto stage with fast food wings, pizza, and a Taco Bueno bag filled with chips and salsa. The chefs were given 9 minutes to use these ingredients and their pantries to create a “perfect meal for a family of four” that did not resemble the original dinner.
When only given 9 minutes to create a perfect meal, a chef has to be quick on their feet and not hesitate when making the dish. For Kobi Perdue, the eventual winner of the Fan Favorite Award, this was achieved by keeping a calm demeanor throughout this event and the entire competition.
“I tried to just stay calm, and levelheaded, and focused throughout the entire event,” Perdue said. “I wanted to go into it relaxed and not really stress out about anything up there.”
While no winner was announced to the crowd for each individual event, all of the chefs did an amazing job of turning their fast food leftovers into a beautiful meal.
For Bria Downey, the Top Chef winner in 2018, it was interesting to be on the other side of the competition and judge this year.
“Jon [Bonnell] has a way of throwing some great curveballs, and it was great seeing how other chefs take on those challenges,” Downey said. “Some of these decisions are made on the fly, and it really showcases some talents that you don’t always get to see in your own kitchen.”
Bonnell’s biggest curveball of the night came during the “think on your feet” third round of the competition. Each chef was given a mystery basket of ingredients and then they had a sports-style draft for the remaining ingredients.
Bonnell’s big trick was that after the draft, he told the chefs that they would have to pass all of their ingredients to the person on their left. After that, the event started, and the chefs (aided by their sous chefs) had just 10 minutes to create a dish that incorporated all of the ingredients.
While this may seem nearly impossible to the everyday at-home cook, Downey said that this event provided her with her favorite dish of the night.
“I’m still not even sure who made the dish, but it had polenta on the bottom of the plate and some kind of hard seared tartare on top of it,” Downey said. “The knife cuts and plating were beautiful.”
The final event of the night was universally considered the hardest. Each chef had just 25 minutes of total cooking time to plate 4 identical dishes that incorporated both rabbit and a cornish game hen. This was tricky not only because most of the chefs hadn’t recently cooked with these ingredients, but they also hadn’t recently fabricated a game hen or a rabbit. It forced them to step outside of their comfort zone with their knife cuts.
For Perdue, knife cuts weren’t the issue in the final round. It was time management.
“I had a little time issue in the last round because I was so focused on the flavor of everything and trying to doctor everything up,” Perdue said. “I didn’t realize that I only had 5 seconds left when I was still seasoning my grits and hadn’t put my protein on the plate yet.”
Perdue said with a chuckle that in his next competition he would just throw the grits on the plate no matter what they tasted like to make sure that his proteins made it.
Zubboli ran into similar time management issues during the final round.
“If I could change anything, I would spend more time to prepare the two meat proteins of the final round and cut them smaller to make them cook faster,” Zubboli said.
Even though Zubboli did not win the competition and had some regrets about the final round, he was still able to go home very happy. Each chef took part in both a silent and live auction to benefit the charity of their choice. The top prize to bid on was an eight-person meal with each of the chefs in which the chef would provide all of the food and wine pairings for the dinner.
As the auction went live, people competed to outbid each other for the services of Kinard, Hicks, and Perdue for a three-person total of $5,600. However, the real excitement began when it was time to bid on Zubboli.
Two Fort Worth gentlemen kept bidding back and forth against each other with no signs of stopping. After essentially stalemating, Fort Worth Magazine allowed, for the first time in their history, two competitors to win Zubboli for their separate dinner parties. The total contribution to Zubboli’s charity, Careity, reached nearly $9,000 between the two men with the grand total charity pot for the night amassing nearly $15,000.
After the excitement of the auction died down, it was time to announce the winners of the competition. The first award presented was Fan Favorite, which went to Kobi Perdue.
Perdue said that he was surprised but very happy that he ended up winning the Fan Favorite Award.
“Looking back on it, in some ways it might be a little bit better of an award to win,” Perdue said. “It’s nice to get that validation from the people that come out to your restaurants that they like your food and wanted to vote for you.”
Next up, it was time for Bria Downey to come out and present the award for Fort Worth Magazine’s 2019 Top Chef. After keeping the audience in suspense for about 15 seconds, she finally announced the winner as Jenna Kinard.
Shock, joy, and excitement were written all over Kinard’s face as she raised her hands to the sky and then lifted the award high above her head.
For Downey, seeing a female chef win the Top Chef Award for the second year in a row brought a smile to her face as well.
“I think that Jenna and I are very fortunate to represent a city like Fort Worth which has always made me feel at home since the day I got here,” Downey said. “Being a woman in this industry can be quite difficult, but in the end, hard work and dedication truly pay off.”