In one corner, a Swedish chef who cooks Italian food.
In the other, a Persian chef known for his infectious Hoss-pitality.
These gifted chefs and longtime friends squared off Wednesday night in a packed house in the Cellar at Macy’s Union Square in San Francisco for the ever popular “Mystery Basket Battle.” It was all in good fun for a good cause — ticket proceeds were donated to Meals on Wheels of San Francisco, which provides nutritious meals to home-bound seniors.
Yours truly was a judge, tasked to determine the winner of this cooking battle, which was as big on flavor as it was on laughs. My fellow judges included Kevin Blum, founder and editor of City Dish; Susannah Chen, associate editor of YumSugar; and Alejandra Schrader, a finalist on “MasterChef’‘ Season 2. Schrader, a trained architect and urban planner, started her own private chef company, Cucina Cocina in Southern California, following her success on the TV show.
“It’s nice to be on this side this time,” Schrader joked as she watched Terje and Zare chopping and stirring up a storm during the 45-minute battle.
The chefs were told ahead of time what six “mystery” ingredients they might have to cook with: kabocha squash, mint, fresh fennel, unsweetened cocoa powder, anchovies and animal crackers.
Then, before the festivities started, each chef reached into a large stockpot, and withdrew a piece of paper that listed one of the ingredients. An audience member was asked to reach into the pot to choose the final ingredient.
The three must-use ingredients? Kabocha squash, anchovies and animal crackers.
Yes, it was shades of the Food Network’s “Chopped!” show.
When the clock started, the chefs — who each were allowed to bring a sous chef to assist — got to work, grabbing pots, chopping garlic, stirring up harissa and simmering lamb stock.
To whet the appetites, servers passed out samples of Zare’s chilled Persian yogurt soup, vibrant with crushed dried rose petals, golden raisins, toasted walnuts and sumac; and Terje’s andouille sausage crostini. To get on the judges’ good side, Zare also served us beautiful cucumber-wrapped glasses of “Mint Memory,” a refreshing blend of lemon, mint, cucumber and red wine vinegar syrup.
Terje, who just became a United States citizen, joked that he only started cooking in Sweden, “To get money for punk rock concerts. I had to get tickets to the Clash.”
When asked what his favorite guilty pleasure was, Terje hemmed and hawed before declaring it, “Meatballs from Ikea. With ligonberry sauce.”
The crowd, overwhelmingly Zare-partisan as evidenced by a show of hands, hooted and hollered when Zare let Terje borrow his famous yard-long peppermill for a real feat of seasoning.
Even though they only had to showcase the three chosen ingredients, both chefs opted to use all six of the secret ingredients on the original list.
As the minutes ticked down, Terje plated a magnificent raviolo, made of cocoa powder dough, filled with kabocha squash puree, sheep’s milk ricotta, Parmigiano and nutmeg. It was topped with rich lamb sugo, flavored with fennel pollen, fennel, tomatoes, anchovies, shallots, and mint. The piece de resistance? “Biscotti d’animale.” Or as Terje described, “the classic bread crumbs fried with garlic — only in this case, it’s animal cracker crumbs.”
Not to be outdone, Zare offered up not one, but two dishes. The first was perfectly cooked escolar, its flesh silky and moist, in an assertively tangy sauce made with tiny pickled young grapes. Alongside it was a plump prawn dredged in animal cracker crumbs and a wedge of kabocha, seasoned with cardamom and roasted until caramelized as sweet as candy. Zare’s second dish featured lamb dusted in cocoa and anchovies, and served with bright green salsa verde, kabocha mash and a harissa-animal cracker sauce.
Upon seeing Zare set down a second dish, Terje raced over to the judges table and declared he also had a second offering — as he deposited a lone animal cracker in front of each of us as the audience erupted in laughter.
We judges had our work cut out for us. Terje’s plate was so cohesive. He managed to blend all the ingredients harmoniously into a lusty, earthy dish you just couldn’t stop eating. Zare’s two dishes had such wonderful, in-your-face bold flavors that covered the spectrum from sweet to salty to tangy that made every bite a new adventure for your palate.
I’ve judged a lot of cooking competitions over the years, but this was by far the hardest. Both efforts were absolutely stunning in execution.
In the end, though, after considering taste, presentation, creativity and use of the ingredients, a winner emerged — by all of one point.
Game to Sweden in this battle.
But nobody’s a loser in this event. Both chefs took home gleaming new All-Clad pans as prizes, along with Macy’s gift cards.
Don’t be surprised if these dishes start showing up on the menu of Perbacco and Zare at Fly Trap, as both chefs were thrilled at the results on the plates. Though at the restaurant, Terje whispered, he might sub out the animal crackers for something a little more, ahem, refined.
Terje and Zare are already plotting a rematch in the Cellar — as well as a trip to some fabulous destination next year to celebrate both of their 50th milestone birthdays together. No doubt, both will be unforgettable, just as it is any time you get a couple of chefs together for foodie fun.
More Macy’s Fun: My Cooking Demo with Chef Alex Ong of Betelnut
And the Video: My Demonstrating Tomato Beef Chow Mein