Brasel Beats the Tofu Out of Pagano in Whole Foods' Culinary Clash

​The kind folks at Whole Foods in Coral Gables asked me to judge a cooking competition between Meat Market's Sean Brasel and STK's Ralph Pagano last night and I--one of the city's most outspoken carnivores--quickly agreed to participate. Little did I know I'd be mawing on heaping helpings of soy instead of steak. Sigh.

The guys were given an hour to prepare three dishes, two savory and one sweet, using a secret ingredient. They had a bounty of items from the store's aisles and departments to choose from to make their masterpieces whole and, if they wanted to incorporate anything else, they'd have to ask for the audience's approval. The judges, Miami Herald's Edgy Veggie columnist Ellen Kanner, Whole Foods' executive coordinator of perishables and purchasing Rashne Desai, and yours truly had to vote on the way the dishes tasted, how original they were, and how well the chefs incorporated their secret ingredient.

Before the match, I asked the guys some questions about their level of preparedness:

New Times: So chefs, what secret weapons are you bringing to battle?

Brasel: Know what I brought? Quart containers. When I'm in competition those things always help.

Pagano: I brought a chef coat, board scraper, and a cleaver.

Any special training involved for a competition such as this?

Brasel: I brought a bunch of ideas I can do real fast. [Brasel had a sheet of paper scribbled with notes.]

Pagano: Yes -- café au lait with two sugars in the raw for prep. And I plugged the address of this store into my GPS.

I'm no stranger to competitive cooking. I was on Iron Chef, battled Bobby Flay, went through "hell" with Gordon Ramsay...

And any predictions as to what the secret ingredient may be?

Brasel: I figured it would be meat since we are both steakhouses, but I can do whatever.

Pagano: I might think there might be some kind of meat. I could really go for a pastrami sandwich right now...

Have you two gentlemen met before?

Brasel: No. But I know he was on Iron Chef and Bobby's Flay's show once.

Pagano: I think we had a "Hey, how ya doin'?" He's got a great reputation in town.

How gentlemanly. Soon the emcee got the festivities rolling and unveiled that the secret ingredient was (drumroll please) a mix of portobello, cremini, and shiitake mushrooms. The twist was that the chefs also had to use a meat alternative in at least one dish. They offered Tofurky, fake chorizo, seitan, and tofu as some options. Pagano seemed unshaken. However dread could be read all over the faces of both moi and Brasel.

Fortunately I had a bottle of Beano in my handbag from a recent visit to my vegan best friend's house so I popped two pills, sucked down some Fiji, and said a little prayer as the chefs got down to business.

Within minutes, Brasel sliced his finger on the mandolin and Pagano's burner stopped working. But these guys were pros, so they forged ahead.

Brasel's dishes came first. He presented a salad dressed with avocado, roasted tomatoes and mushrooms, and a roasted balsamic and garlic vinaigrette to start. His second savory dish starred curry-marinated tofu topped with a beefy slab of portobello and another salad with sliced green apples, red onion, and mango. Dessert incorporated pears from the pizza oven decorated with caramelized mushroom slices, a port wine sauce, and a dollop of not-too-sweet cream. All were solid, clean dishes with surprising touches.

Pagano produced a pizza with goat cheese and shiitake mushrooms, wild mushroom risotto with a lemon beurre blanc, and a dessert dish comprising a slab of tofu marinated in brown sugar and cinnamon with a tempura-battered cremini slice, spoon of gorgonzola, and pieces of fig in a pool of caramel with a powdered sugar topping.

Both chefs pulled out six tasty offerings, but Pagano's underdone risotto, uninspired pizza, and out-there tofu dessert did me in. Perhaps the other judges agreed. And as for the tofu, one can put lipstick on a piece of soy, but... Thankfully his over-the-top personality compensated.

So Brasel was declared the winner and a good time was had by all. Especially me, though I admit I would've been happy to gnaw a chunk off Lady Gaga's meat dress after that if I had the opportunity.

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Riki Altman