Local Chefs Battle to Win Flavor's Culinary Showdown

Now In its eighth year, Scene's Flavor event, hosted on Dec. 15 at the Aloft Cleveland hotel complex, will feature 40 notable restaurants, food trucks, and a culinary launch kitchen. (Tickets to the event are available at clevescenetickets.com.) The event is a celebration of our notable food community in a VIP setting that allows guests to meet and mingle with chefs while munching on samples from every food group imaginable.

Last year, the Culinary Showdown was introduced, a 30-minute quick-fire competition that pitted three rising chefs against one another for a chance to win $1,000 and bragging rights. The rules were simple: Create a dish to impress the panel of judges in both taste and presentation, utilizing one key ingredient.

Ultimately, it was Michael Schoen of Sol (38257 Glenn Ave., Willoughby, 440-918-1596, solwilloughby.com) who took home the top prize with his ancho chile, cocoa and coffee, fermented black-garlic rubbed wild boar tenderloin, served with sassafras-scented sweet potato puree and Luxardo cherry gastrique. The key ingredient was Woodford Reserve bourbon, with a surprise challenge of incorporating cranberry sauce into the already conceptualized plates.

While Schoen didn't stick to Sol's Spanish-inspired menu for his entree, the tables could turn in 2016 when he returns to defend his title. "The inspiration was drawn from the bourbon," he says. "I worked at a restaurant in Chicago where we cooked with beer and used a lot of bourbon in our cuisine. Immediately, when I got that ingredient I went to my comfort zone and knew that I could put together something based off of my past."

Will having previously competed give him a leg up? "Obviously, you think about that, but to be honest with you I'm going to stay true to what I do and hopefully have the same results as last year. I look forward to competing with some new chefs."

Phil Hultz, manager and chef at Roxu Fusion (15607 Madison Ave., 216-920-5060, roxufusion.com) has a different approach when it comes to the battle. "I'll take corncobs and roll them under the feet of other chefs," he jokes. In all seriousness, his strategy involves presenting the chosen ingredient in the freshest way possible, a strategy common to Asian cuisine, which inspires much of Roxu's menu.

"I'm definitely going to work in some of our regional ingredients and focus on having control over the competition," he adds. "I can feature the ingredient more in a steam bun or noodle bowl; I can make it stick out. If you're doing more of a French style of cooking, maybe you'd be inclined to turn it into a sauce. But I'm willing to present it up front."

Rookie Nelly Buleje will represent Adega (2017 East Ninth St., 216-331-6289, metropolitancleveland.com) after only three months as head of that kitchen; he formerly served as executive chef at Azure Rooftop Lounge.

"I wouldn't say that I'm known for one specific cuisine," he reports. "I'd say that I'm a cultural chef. I've been fortunate enough to travel everywhere: to Peru, the Philippines and the Caribbean. I was born in the U.S., my parents are Guatemalan and Mexican, and so my cuisine is culturally infused."

Depending on the special ingredient, he may choose to represent Adega with a modern Mediterranean plate.

As for what the wildcard ingredient is, it's anyone's guess, but the chefs are hoping for a challenging item.

"I would love, just because of the strategic advantage, durian," Hultz says of the stinky Japanese fruit.

"I think beer would be amazing; some kind of extremely hoppy beer," Schoen hopes.

Buleje would go back to his roots: "Spicy peppers that would throw everyone off."