A&Eats: The grand finale

Chefs busily diced, sautéed, and pureed. The aromas of wagyu steaks and Peruvian curries, scotch eggs and marinated lamb chops, deliciously danced around the kitchen and into the dining room. The heat was up, and the tension and excitement in the air were undeniable. This day could change the rest of their lives.

After four months of work, endless meetings, countless Skype calls, and a massive community contest, the A&Eats cook-off had finally arrived. Six teams cooked side-by-side at FIU’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. They busily prepared, cooking like their lives depended on it, all for a shot at winning a rent-free restaurant space on the ground floor of Filling Station Lofts, a trendy residential building in the burgeoning Arts + Entertainment District.

The night began with a round of amuse-bouche, single-bite appetizers, created by each team. Andy Bates’ British diner The Avenue served up some delicious scotch eggs, while Leo Holtzman’s Cocktail Collection delivered spoonfuls of crisp rice with tuna paste decorating the top. Meanwhile, at the Art & Craft kitchen, soul music blasted through cell-phone speakers, while the head chef prepared salmon cakes garnished with peppers, onions, and an olive oil glaze.

Over at the Cilantro station, the team busily prepared plates of ceviche de India on a bed of quinoa. “I have my team of students here with me — I feel ready, I feel good,” Chef Nilton Castillo said.

But as sampling time ended, and supper began, The Avenue’s chef, Andy Bates, paced around the kitchen. His restaurant was first up on the chopping block. “I’m just desperate for the judges to sit down,” he said as he hurriedly arranged a row of six custard tarts on a metal shelf.

Around 8 p.m., the seven judges took their seats around a rectangular table, one on each side, and another at the end. They hailed from all over, with perspectives ranging from marketing professionals, to professors, to fellow chefs. The right restaurant had to have the perfect balance of originality, expertise, and capacity for community building.

Bates, a celebrity chef from London, began his pitch by telling the story of how he met his wife Frenchy Mingo while filming a series on American street food in Miami. Mingo, who was working at Ms. Cheezious at the time, had actually graduated from FIU’s Chaplin School many years ago. While Mingo was not present at the event, the duo’s co-partner Vivian Belzaguy managed the kitchen in the back while Bates wooed the judges out front.

The first dish on the menu was a pie and mash — a beef and bone marrow pie with an all butter rough puff pastry and butter and cream mash with garden peas. As Bates brought out the dish, Belzaguy poured beer from a growler of Wynwood Fox Dry Red Ale for the judges. The dish itself had been cooked with that very beer, Bates explained.

Finally, time for dessert. Bates served a baked custard tart with nutmeg on a sweet crust pastry, along with shortbread biscuits and raspberry compote. And to top off the meal, he poured out a glass of sweet breakfast tea from a charming tea kettle branded with the English flag.

“I can’t remember anything. It all happened so fast. I’m worried I rushed it all,” Bates said nervously back in the kitchen as he helped the team clear off plates for the next meal.

The New York-based Turkish/Spanish trio Triciclo followed The Avenue with a delicious Mediterranean meal. Up next, was the Peruvian/Indian fusion, Cilantro. Following that, was our night’s runner-up, the southern soul of Art & Craft. Little Bird came next, with wagyu steak and a creme brulee donut. And cap off the night, Holtzman of Cocktail Collection did a magic trick for the judges as he served up a panko-crusted chicken sandwich alongside a hand-crafted cocktail.

After all the meals were served, and the judges’ stomachs were nice and full, it was deliberation time. They carefully reviewed their scorecards and compared notes. But after roughly 20 minutes of deliberating, there was still not a clear winner. All of the concepts were so unique, and the dishes so well-executed. The group went back and forth — ultimately settling on The Avenue for its novel concept and cultural fit.

But they couldn’t let go of Art & Craft so easily. Enamored by their polished delivery and excellent entrees, the judges decided to name Art & Craft as a runner-up, giving the team another opportunity to contribute to the culinary culture in the A+E district.

The decision was made. It was time to announce it to the anxious room on the other side of the wall. As The New Tropic’s own Chris Sopher announced the winners, the anxiety of expectation filled the dining room. Unable to sit and propelled by a rush of emotion, Art & Craft’s Laurence McMillion, hurriedly exited the room just as his restaurant’s name was announced.

Tensions mounted as the first place prize lingered in the air for the five remaining teams. “And our winner is…” Sopher teased, pausing for a few seconds. “The Avenue.”

Bates instantly jumped up and cheered — his face a mix of utter disbelief and excitement. Bates and Belzaguy approached the front, eagerly accepting their key to the Arts + Entertainment District.

“I can’t believe it,” Bates said, smiling with every crease of his face, hugging and kissing everyone in sight. The Avenue is on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Follow their journey at @theavenuemiami.