Yam, Bam, Thank You Ma'am: Conley Cracks Hutson in Culinary Clash at Whole Foods Market

Last night this Short Order blogger had the privilege of sitting pretty with fellow judges Executive Chef Sean Bernal of Oceanaire Seafood Room and Florida Region Executive Marketing Coordinator Russ Benblatt of Whole Foods Market to judge a cooking competition between chefs Clay Conley of Azul at the Mandarin Oriental and Cindy Hutson of Ortanique.

The Coral Gables store is celebrating its second anniversary with a series of special events like this food spar, as part of its partnership with Chefs' Club.   Five percent of store proceeds yesterday also benefited Junior League of Miami's Step Up to the Plate program.  

Our mission was to determine the winner of this one hour mad dash to

conceive and plate three dishes a piece, testing the chefs' ability to

think on their feet, work with sous chefs they just met, and their

charisma to draw and hold the attention of a hungry crowd, which peaked

at about 50.  Talk about having a lot on one's plate.

Conley, who has about five cooking competitions under his belt, said at

the outset that these kind of things stress him out. 


we're friends," he said of going head to head with Hutson, known for

her "cuisine under the sun" and strong Caribbean influence. "Unless

it's plantains and jerk spice, we're fine."

Conley is speaking of the secret ingredient, three different kinds of

yams, including boniato,

American sweet potato, and yuca.  The chefs were provided with a

stocked pantry of fresh and packaged items from the store, including

its 365 brand.  Throughout the battle, they were allowed special

additional ingredient requests pending audience approval.  Each was

provided use of a gas burner, a shared blender, and a 570 degree

wood-burning oven, with a full-service kitchen in the back.


strategy is to not go outside my box, and do what I know," explained

Hutson. "I had an idea of what I was going to do, but with the monkey

wrench thrown in, it won't help much!"

Judge Bernal, who decided

on the plump tubers for the battle, explained that all yams are native

to Africa, coming over to the Americas in the slave trade.

"They all have different levels of starch and sweetness, and therefore cooking times," he explained.

Clearly Conley thrives under pressure; he emerged victorious with three varied and successful dishes.  Here is the battle in pictures.