The Chopped Challenge at St. Matthew’s House

On top of providing more than 230,000 hot meals last year and a place to stay each night to 170-plus individuals, Collier County’s only emergency shelter and food ministry, St. Matthew’s House (SMH), cooked up one heck of a cooking competition.

(For St. Matthew's House's photo gallery of the competition, click here.)

Seven culinary teams from a variety of gourmet niches in Naples put their skills to the test in the St. Matthew’s House Chef’s Chopped Challenge. Their mission: to take random ingredients donated to SMH and make the most decadent and original courses possible, preparing enough for a crowded room of hungry residents. Each chef and team had one day and evening to prepare, cook and serve their dishes, with residents voting on taste, presentation and originality afterwards.

 

Lisa Resch of Carolina Catering, Naples, created this dish.

Lisa Resch of Carolina Catering, Naples, created this dish. (photos: Tyler Shore)

The contending chefs were Andrew Hunter with The Bay House, Chad O’Connor with RealFit Foods, Kevin Takei, a private chef, award-winning chef Lt. Craig Weinbaum with the East Naples Fire Control & Rescue, Brian Roland with Crave Culinaire, Lisa Resch with Carolina Catering, and Ron Casterline with Bernwood Grille & Catering. The winner of the first round of contests was Roland. His prize: a spot in the final, squaring him up against chef Eric Delano cooking for St. Matthew’s House, in a head-to-head finale.

 

Chefs Eric Delano and Brian Rolad competed for bragging rights at St. Matthew's House's Chopped Challenge.

Final contest competitors Eric Delano, left, and Brian Roland.

Delano's culinary endeavors began at age 11, and he was trained at the University of New Hampshire. He later worked in Naples restaurants including Roy’s, Trilogy and The Jolly Cricket. 

Raising awareness was the driver behind the Chef’s Chopped Challenge—to engage and show the community what SMH does everyday. It is the only emergency shelter and food ministry in Collier County, helping thousands since 1987.

“There’s no prize,” says Blake Becker, the challenge organizer from SMH Catering, adding that the Chef’s Chopped Challenge was all about local chefs getting a chance to “… walk in our shoes, as we do every day. And do what we do on a daily basis.”

That means making exceptional meals with whatever ingredients are available for a large crowd.

 

Lisa Resch of Carolina Catering, Naples, at St. Matthew's House Chopped Challenge.

Lisa Resch of Carolina Catering with her team at the Chopped Challenge, above, and with a guest, below.

Lisa Resch, Carolina Catering, Naples, at St. Matthew's House.

One of the runners-up, Lisa Resch, founder of Carolina Catering, was the seventh chef to compete for the chance to battle in the final. “I live on Davis Boulevard … St. Matthew’s is right down the road from me,” she says. “I really feel it’s important to stay attached to the community and give back.” With the help of SMH volunteers and her own formally dressed servers, Resch served three hors d’oeuvres prior to a four-course dinner consisting of an Italian sausage marinara pasta, a hoisin grilled rib-eye salad, a slow-cooked entrée of chicken and cheddar biscuits with a side of roasted tomatoes and brussels sprouts, and lastly, sweet potato and white chocolate French toast with bacon whipped cream and caramel sauce. Her table setting, menus and overall presentation transformed SMH into something exquisite—she created an atmosphere that felt warmer and more inviting than a restaurant.

In the elimination round, Roland represented his new company Crave Culinaire, where he creates unique culinary experiences for anywhere from two to 200-plus people. His winning four-course meal featured a wild mushroom and spinach flatbread with smoked bacon, a marinated heirloom tomato mozzarella salad, seared chicken breast and stuffed eggplant with fingerling potatoes, and concluding with a brownie-cookie-waffle sundae. “The concept was fantastic,” Roland says. “It was fun for me to kind of challenge myself.” It was a unique experience for him, working with mystery ingredients—not to mention seven eager volunteers without culinary experience. “They were really into it … once I created the menu, they put their heads down and made it work with me,” he says. Roland and his team’s creations were a huge hit, returning the highest scores from residents. “The most rewarding thing for me was seeing the smiling faces on everyone afterwards,” he says, admitting it sounds cheesy, but is nevertheless genuine. “It really hit my heart when I walked around, and they were like, ‘Chef, did you create this?’ and then they stood up, shook my hand and said, ‘This is the best meal we’ve had here yet.’” 

 

A dish from the Chopped Challenge Finale.

A dish from the final match.

The Chopped Challenge finale was an epic contest, and a close one. In addition to residents’ votes, the night included a special guest panel of judges including Mayor John F. Sorey. The fun surprise of the night came when the required-in-everything mystery ingredient was revealed: pounds of candy corn in a bright, rosy hue.

Neither Delano nor Roland flinched. They managed to incorporate the colorful confection into every part of their three-course meals. Delano first served grilled cheese and tomato soup with a candy corn-cranberry-sunflower seed salad, then moved to a duet of frizzled pork loin napoleon and lamb shank manicotti drizzled with a candy corn-balsamic and smoked tomato emulsion. Dessert was a candy corn-strawberry sorbet popsicle.

Roland challenged this lineup with an equally original set, starting with lamb-charred eggplant pot-stickers served with a candy corn and roasted pepper bisque. Second course was pumpkin tea and coffee roast pork loin accompanied by bacon-wrapped candy corns, and dessert was French toast-candy corn bread pudding.

Each candied creation was declared delicious, leading to the final vote revealing the narrowest of victories: Chef Eric Delano won the Chef’s Chopped Challenge by a margin of eight votes out of the 80 cast. 

At the end of the day, the greatest success was scored by St. Matthew’s House. The event made hundreds of delicious, creative meals for many in need, spread awareness for SMH across Southwest Florida, and challenged local chefs to create some unique dishes they would never had made anywhere else.  

For everyone who would like to catch some culinary competition fever, do not miss the next edition of The Chopped Challenge at the annual Taste of Collier at Bayfront, April 28. Chris Jones, president of the local chapter of the American Culinary Federation and executive chef at Old Collier Country Club, will face off in a battle against popular Naples chef Kristofer Jubinville. The winner will battle chef Brian Roland in a final iron chef showdown.
Proceeds from this mainstay of community events will benefit St. Matthew’s House.