Monday was the finals of B2 Productions’ Chopped Mixology Columbus. It was a crowded, raucous house at Mozaik that got its money’s worth out of the competition.
The finalists were, in order of selection, Cris Dehlavi, Zak Renzetti-Voit, Jordan Conkey, and Joseph Gardina. You can read about each and their roads to the finals at the links.
The format of this bartending competition is different from most, as are the skills it tests. Before the finals, Zak told me that,
Of all the competitions I’ve done, this is my favorite. I asked him why and his response was that the compressed time and the mystery ingredients made it more of a test and less of a show. Twenty minutes is not a lot of time to make up a new drink and produce four good looking specimens thereof, especially with ingredients you at least aren’t expecting and may not have ever tried before.
And while creativity and taste instincts are the primary skills being tested in this format, I can tell you as a judge that fancy knife skills, witty words, and general professionalism prolonged the stays of several of the 16 competitors during the last month.
The competitors this week all had experience with the format, and each seemed both more focused and more nervous than they had before the preliminaries. Some of this was knowing what they were in for, and some was the fact that the prize for the first four weeks was more work, whereas the prize for this week was a trip for two to Las Vegas….
Each contestant had brought a large crowd to support them in their efforts. This is great for the contestants, but a bit less so for the judges, since they could tell before the competition that they were gonna get booed every time they gave someone the chop!
The first round featured a mystery basket containing Ketel One, Tanqueray 10, Ruby Red grapefruit, and a jar of Penzey’s Chinese Five Spice Blend. Apparently the baskets for this round were packed by Pandora, because they also contained the most drama of any round in the competition.
Joseph elected to concoct a pair of drinks, each of which was to be topped with champagne. A staff member was tidying up around the periphery as time was running out, and when Joseph went to pour his champagne floats, the bubbly he had set up was nowhere to be found! Panicked seconds flew by, and he did not get all his drinks finished, leaving a ragged line of eight different looking flutes at his station—right in front of the judges!
As the other contestants approached with their drinks, Brandon offered to poll the others about whether Joseph should be allowed to finish prepping the rest of his drinks. Zak was asked first, and since he had seen this unfolding, he said OK. Cris, who did not understand what was happening heard only that Joseph wanted more time, and hard-nosed competitor that she is, said no. This made for a testy round of drink presentations….
It turned out not to matter, as Zak ended up getting the chop. He had the most trouble with the spice, and he neglected to tell the judges that they were supposed to use the sugared grapefruit garnish to counteract the bitterness in the pure drink.
Now, if this had been a TV reality show like Survivor or Next Food Network Star (or something more mature like seventh grade), the producers would have gotten Cris and Joseph separated and fanned the situation into an eight episode feud. Instead, Cris and Joseph talked among themselves and demonstrated that they were grownups. Take that, Hollywood!
The second round basket contained Parrot Bay 90, some berry applesauce, apple green tea, and a bottle of pomegranate soda. Cris and Joseph put together tasty concoctions that did a great job of marrying the pretty wild collection of flavors, while Jordan chose to make a coffee cocktail, the Blackheart Martini. If you liked coffee drinks, this one had potential. But it fell afoul of the dreaded question,
Where the heck are the required ingredients? There was just too much bitter blackness (NotThatThere’sAnythingWrongWithThat) to pick out the original fruitiness. But the Parrot Bay 90 went surprisingly well, so keep that in mind.
And with that, we were down to two contestants. My impression was that Cris and Joseph were essentially tied going into the last round, the judges also seemed to think that way. It was interesting to note that Columbus has only two AAA Four Diamond rated restaurants, and their representatives were the finalists in this competition.
The final basket contained Ciroc Red Berry Vodka, a tub of pistachio ice cream, toasted almonds, and the oh, so esoteric Pimm’s #1.
Joseph did what he had for every drink in he competition: he started with his garnish. His skills with a knife are really impressive. I almost stopped worrying he was going to add blood as an extra ingredient by the time the finals were over. He does a lot of the elaborate tableside preparation that the Refectory offers, so he works fast and sure while creating food sculpture. In this case, he made little shot glasses out of the strawberries, covered them in chocolate and set them in the fridge to set up. His drink, Strawberries and Cream, was a well-made blender concoction that took every minute he had left to balance and prepare.
Cris also used every moment of allotted time. Her Berries and Meringue was a beautiful cocktail. The really interesting element was a quick toasted almond meringue she made on the spot. Having just made a batch of mayonnaise the day before myself, I was amazed that she could get such a nice foam going with a hand-whisk in the little time she had after re-balancing her drink more than once. The dollop of the stuff that she added to the drinks was both a cool garnish, and a delicious flavoring.
Joseph’s strawberry shot glasses of Gran Marnier did not quite come off as intended, with the chocolate failing to fully set and most of the liqueur absorbing into the berry. They still looked good, and the drink itself was delicious and had a great texture. The flavors were all there and all happy together.
Cris’s was also fabulous, and while I’d have dinged her on the scorecard for the less than lyrical name, the meringue worked perfectly and the drink was one of those rare dessert cocktails that would appeal to snooty cocktailian (with it’s delicate and exotic flavors) and country club party-goer (with its creamy sweetness) alike.
For the record, I agreed with the judges who narrowly awarded the win to Cris.
Cris deserves this win because she had to work so hard for it. The competition she faced was very, very good as well. No one advanced from round to round, much less night to night, without being both talented and at least a little lucky. Brandon Bowsher produced a really excellent event that truly tested the contestants’ instincts and abilities. The crowds had fun too, which is not an unimportant detail.
I’ll try to do one more post about the whole thing, with some general comments on the process, in a little while, but this post is already a week late and over long. Congratulations to every contestant and to Cris Dehlavi for the win. I’ll leave you with her recipe for her final cocktail.
- Ciroc Berry Vodka
- Pimm’s No. 1
- pistachio ice cream
- simple syrup
- toasted almonds
- egg whites
Muddle almonds with simple syrup and let infuse. Mix 2 parts Ciroc and 1 part Pimm’s with equal amount of the ice cream. Stir and strain out the larger pistachios. Whip the egg whites and add the strained almond syrup and some granulated sugar. “Beat the hell out of them” some more. Shake the first tin with ice and strain into the cocktail glass. Gently dollop on the meringue and garnish with a large strawberry.