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Duck, Duck, Chefs

Over the years as a food writer, I’ve had the pleasure of judging many a food competition.

I’ve critiqued a gingerbread house contest, untold cookie exchanges, an apple pie baking battle (twice), a nursing home food cook-off, the short-lived TV series “Food Fight,” and even the $1 million Pillsbury Bake-Off.

But nothing quite prepared me for the Duckathlon.

Say what??!

My thoughts exactly.

Like me, you probably haven’t heard of it because it’s super secret. Indeed, this only-in-New York rencounter is by invitation-only. As a food writer in town for the James Beard awards gala, I was invited to be a part of it. I was told I couldn’t tell anyone ahead of time that I was involved with it. I was just supposed to report to HQ (“headquarters” to you non-James Bond-ians) at mid-day May 3. It was all so hush-hush.

HQ turned out to be Chelsea Market. And if you haven’t guessed by now, the Duckathlon is a culinary competition — if Monty Python or Ben Stiller came up with it.

This rather bawdy, zany, tongue-in-cheek event was created by Ariane Daguine of D’Artagnan, the foie gras and specialty meat purveyor. Teams of chefs from some of New York’s most celebrated restaurants don wacky costumes to pit their culinary skills against one another in all manner of crazy contests staged throughout the Meatpacking District. Trust me, you’ve never seen the likes of this.

This was the fifth year of the Duckathlon. The first one was held on a lark in 2005 as a way to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary, and to foster relationships with restaurants. It proved such a hit with chefs that it’s been held ever since. Because after all, chefs are the ultimate competitors. They are warriors in whites. They are a force to be reckoned with. And if beer is at all involved, you can count on them being there.

So did these teams prepare for hours and hours in the kitchen beforehand?

Not exactly.

“I didn’t train at all,” says Chris “The Wedge” Lim, chef de cuisine of BLT Steak. “We’re all still drunk from the night before.”

“I did push-ups and sit-ups,” says Lauren Hirschberg, chef de cuisine of Craft Bar. “And 30 minutes of cardio.”

“I was speaking to ducks a lot,” quipped (or quacked) Thea Williamson, head of work in education for Team Gracie.

One of the most memorable challenges was “So Long, Saucisson.” Above, Celso Moreira, operations manager, of China Grill, wears a bra and hoop skirt, while trying to dunk a sausage suspended from a string into a metal can below that he can’t see. He was a natural at it.

“It was the bra,” he says of the fuschia lace cups he wore. “It gave me the support to win.”

Two other events had bystanders howling: The “Smile with Swine,” in which teams had to pose creatively with pig heads. And “Ball Buster,” in which teams had to guess which gonads belonged to which animals.

As a judge, I was given a tote bag of plastic ducks. I was to hand out a duck or two to teams I came across who were doing particularly well at the challenge at hand. If anyone resorted to any fowl behavior, I was to take a duck from them. Oh, the pressure.

In the end, almost every team won something. Prizes included everything from cookbooks to All-Clad saute pans to whole lobes of foie gras to hundreds of dollars worth of prized fresh morels and maitake mushrooms.


Last year’s overall champs, Le Cercle Rouge took home “best dressed” honors. The bronze medal went to Jacques Torres’ team; the silver to Tribeca Grill; and the gold to Annisa.

Jason Colucci, purchasing manager for Tribeca Grill, whooped and hollered at his team’s surprise second place. Colucci, who had knitted his team’s uniforms last year (yes, you heard that right), couldn’t have been happier.

Raising his arms in the air, he yelled, “This is like winning an Oscar!”

Indeed, it was a quacking good time for all.

For more photos, go to my “Duckathlon Leftovers” post.

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