Don’t bet against John Evans if there’s food involved.
Recently he was invited to compete in a regional cook-off at the Thunder Valley Casino Resort, as part of Pacific Seafood’s fifth annual “Sea to Shining Sea” food show.
Evans, owner of ZacJacks Bistro in Cameron Park, was pitted against three other chefs for the bragging rights of Top Chef.
On Oct. 8 at high noon the quartet was handed mysterious but identical boxes of six foodstuffs, a few surprising ingredients, two propane burners, two cooking pots and one hour of time.
The winning entrée would have to excel in presentation, taste and creativity. Cleanliness would be an important factor, as disorderly cook stations and messy plating won’t cut it at this level. Plating? The white spaces should appear cleanly between portions, with no tell-tale intrusions onto the perfect bone-China rim.
Three palate-savvy judges awaited.
Similar to the Food Network’s hit show “Chopped”, the event was unforgiving in every food-prep detail imaginable.
Evans knew what to expect. He has been a super performer in high-expectation eateries for 25 years. The wunderkind drew culinary attention in 1989 when he was awarded Server of the Year while working at Spago’s in Los Angeles.
That helped launch his elevation through the world of pedigree food, as owner of successive restaurants and upscale coffee houses in California and Las Vegas.
Unlike many restaurant investors, Evans didn’t spend his time analyzing spread-sheets — he worked the kitchen line.
“I value real kitchen experience,” explained the entrepreneur, who also owns Zachery Jacques specialty foods market and wine tasting room in Placerville. “That’s where the lessons of food are learned,” he said at his bistro, nodding to a table of toasting customers.
“The chef must be equal parts craftsman and artist. Perfection shouldn’t be merely desirable in preparing food, it should be the standard,” he said.
The whole artist-in-the-kitchen thing is out the window.
“You can’t rely on inspiration and experimentation when it’s all on the line,” said Evans.
He explained the sequence of braising, marinating, seasoning, warming and mixing has to be cleverly thought out, much more than you’d do at home where there might be racks of pots and pans, multiple cook tops and yards of prep space.
At the cook-off you have two pots, two burners and precious time.
Noon arrived and the countdown began. The surprise boxes were opened. Opa (Hawaiian seafood) and hanger steak (ask a butcher) were the proteins. Ingredients were unpacked and burners were ignited. Evans immediately saw the fusion of French and Polynesian, both second nature to him. Bring it on.
Technique is important, it’s clean-as-you-go, akin to a juggling act with the right product rotated into the right pan at the right time. Each of the four chefs knew how to cook fish and beef. But preparing Opa requires special knowledge, ditto the hanger steak.
“It’s not theoretical, it experiential,” Evans reflected. “Make one serious error and every other outcome is affected.”
If the potatoes are not fully cooked at the final bell, dump them. If the braised lentils seem hard or cold, don’t serve them. If the Hawaiian Opa fish appears undercooked or the unheralded hanger steak overdone, you may have just made expensive garbage.
If the goat cheese topping on the peeled and precisely cubed butternut squash appears inartfully presented, or any of the uber-culinary guidelines abused, the judges’ points reduce like boiling coconut water in a one-inch sauce pan. Yes, that was another ingredient.
The creamed horseradish, chopped and caramelized sweet onions, carrots, red wine, chicken stock, and chorizo sausage helped make up two sauces for each protein.
The 51-year-old Evans followed his own principles, used the empty box as a trash can, kept the area spotless and finished the job with 15 minutes left on the clock. He conducted endless taste-tests while awaiting the bell.
The three younger competitors did their best but the problematic task was clearly not in line with their backgrounds.
Executive chefs Ryan Curry of Raley’s Field, Frank Gibson of Tamarack Junction Casino in Reno, and Bret Bealte of the Ridge Golf Course, Auburn, watched good naturedly as the judges unanimously and enthusiastically awarded Evans the prestigious blue ribbon.
The next competition will pit the creative and practical chef against winners in other regions, notably San Francisco and Napa. He knows the contest won’t be a cake-walk but when you are John Evans, the finer food world has always been your oyster.