Duck, Duck, Chefs

The Fifth Annual Duckathlon

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.

Team Le Cercle Rouge, last year's grand champions get into the spirit.

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.

Le Cirque team member participating in "flock around the clock'' obstacle course while balancing plastic duck on a spoon.

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.

Don't try this at home.

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.”

Team Green Grape depicts "Hear no evil; see no evil; speak no evil.''

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.

Do you have the um, balls, to play this game?

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.

The high spirited Bar Boulud team (front).

Bar Boulud Team (back).

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.

The master of chocolate, Jacques Torres.

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.

Team Tribeca Grill tries to guess chocolate percentages.

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.

"Meat Twister,'' a new version of the classic kids' game.

The Pluckemin Inn Team does the twist -- meat-style.

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

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  • What a hoot! (I know, wrong bird!) Sounds like you had a great time. Just goes to show that chefs have a lot of “inner child!”

  • That’s awesome! I would love to be a ducky judge!

  • This has got to be the oddest food-related event I’ve ever heard of. No wonder they keep it a secret! LOL

  • That is hillarious! I would have loved to be there, except for the pig head part. That kind of creeps me out, but I love ‘ball buster.’ Too funny.

  • Dear Goodness you lead an interesting life, Carolyn. A tad too much on the serious side, sometimes, but ever-interesting!

    Are the events the same from year to year, or does some demented planning team come up with new ones?

    Too funny!

  • Now, meat twister just looks like fun!

  • omg, this looks like a hoot!

  • I am deeply envious of what you got to do!!

    One question — you were supposed 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.”

    My question: Did you take any ducks? I am going to bet you’re too kind-hearted to take a duck away from anyone.

  • This has got to be the most zany, raunchy and altogether insanely fun competition ever! I was going to ask about the nursing home cook-off but the rest of the post blew that out of my mind. I wonder: how did you receive the invite? A mysterious phone call in the middle of the night? A duck-masked messenger slipping it under your hotel door? Ahh – the intrigue . . . !

  • Are we so desensitized to violence that it is a form of entertainment to pose for “funny” pictures with bloody pig heads?

  • Is Liz so disconnected from her diet that she does not even realize that bloody pig heads are as much food as that aseptically wrapped pork tenderloin at the supermarket or a head of organically-grown celery at the farmers’ market?

  • yes humans are detached from the process of how their food is processed and prepared. I seriously doubt most people could kill and butcher a rabbit or a pig if it came down to it. Growing celery? probably a lot easier. and humane.

  • maybe liz is a vegetarian, that would explain it. and yes, this is very offensive.

  • Sounds like fun, but the photo of Celso Moreira trying to suspend a sausage in an unseen can needs to be looked at closely to dispel any mistaken thoughts. Or is it just me……..?

  • There will be a time -in a parallel universe, planet of the swine, etc.- when grinning pigs hold human heads in a food contest. Then we won’t be so amused, right!?

  • Chemaine Healy

    This seriously disgusts me. It’s enough that we use animals for basically every aspect of life (food, clothing, entertainment, etc) but now this is such a slap in the face to the animals that give us so much. posing with their heads and smiling? guessing which balls belong to them? meat twister? seriously, this is appalling.

  • Moe: You’re right. I gaveth ducks, but did not taketh any away. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Tangled Noodle: Well, in this new high-tech age, the invitation to judge came about through very modern means. Ariane of D’Artagnan sent me a note on FaceBook, asking if I would like to be a part of the event.

    Vegetarians: Yes, this event is probably not the most tasteful out there. But that’s the whole point of it. It’s done with humor, to blow off some steam. In reality, so many of these cooks, who work for some of the nation’s top restaurants, have more respect for animals than you give them credit for. They work with the best ingredients, and so they value them. They use every bit of every animal because they know that a life was sacrificed. They work with family farms, as opposed to industrial ones, to help keep these businesses alive. They create markets for heritage breeds that otherwise might no longer exist because the demand would not be there to raise them otherwise. I’m sure these points won’t change how you feel, and I wouldn’t want them to, as I understand your passion for what you believe in. So I hope we’ll just agree to respectfully disagree.

  • Meat Twister hahaha. I do see how this would be offensive to vegetarians (it is a bit ghoulish) but I think your response above is right on the money. If this were a “frat” party I’d be upset. The key is whether we respect what we eat – whether flora or fauna, I might add.

  • Hysterical. When do we see this challenge on the Food Network ๐Ÿ™‚

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