The organizers of YEG Food Masters hope to show off Edmonton's culinary talent while building community and bringing people together face-to-face once again.
"COVID really isolated people, and the hospitality industry really took a major hit. We wanted to create an event around people's passion for food, building some excitement around it and bringing people together," Hifa Maleki, a partner in the El Beso and El Corazon brands in Edmonton, told Taproot. "We hope that it'll foster and build a community allowing people to re-engage and network with their peers."
The first round on Oct. 12 featured Earl Briones, chef at Carbivore Subs, and Levi Biddlecombe, chef and owner of Backstairs Burger and Tortilla Samurai.
In the end, Briones took the win. "I'm just so thankful and honoured to have the ability to look up out of the kitchen and see so many faces again," he posted.
"It was a razor-thin victory and we both agreed there is a rematch coming in the near future," Biddlecombe added. "I am so grateful to be able to do something I love with good friends and people I care about while contributing to this Edmonton food scene that has been so good to me over the years."
The competition was created by the team behind El Beso, including owner Percy Wiredu and chef Jesse Woodland. Maleki said a dinner between Woodland and Biddlecombe provided the spark for the idea.
The two worked their networks to invite chefs and seek nominations for "wildcards" — competitors who aren't professional chefs. In the first round, the wildcards were Josh Bauman and Kyle Hebert. The goal in the future is for the competition to accept applications from interested chefs.
The competition will continue on the second Wednesday of the month until a winner is crowned in June.
The number of rounds and length of the competition is intentional, Maleki said.
"We spread it out a bit as we didn't want to pull chefs out of their kitchens as frequently, as we know that many businesses in our industry are impacted by tight schedules. We wanted to be respectful and mindful of that," Maleki said.
Each contestant gets three secret ingredients and an hour to prepare and plate a dish. The panel of judges evaluates taste, presentation, and how well the competitors pair their dish with the secret spirit revealed at the beginning of the night.
Maleki said the judges will vary from round to round, and they're open to suggestions. "We are looking for judges that will be excited to attend, have a passion for people and food, and are great YEG community ambassadors."
The organizers also hope the competition will showcase the culinary talent that is behind the "beautiful and delicious" restaurants that have opened in the city in recent years. "The reason we have seen a greater shift in more dynamic restaurants is that we have some incredibly talented people in our city that allow us to do that," Maleki said.
The public will also have a chance to taste the dishes each round. Tickets are $180 for two people and include cocktails, an appetizer, an entrée, dessert, and four competition tastings.
"We really wanted to invite people to sit, watch, and enjoy the experience of seeing many of these great chefs and talented cooks in action through a fun and entertaining competition," Maleki said.