Thursday, May 5, 2011

Duckathlon!: New York's top kitchens compete in Culinary Challenges

The first of May was a gorgeous, sunny day in New York. While some were lounging in Central Park, biking through the five boroughs or just enjoying lunch al fresco, the kitchen staffs from New York's top restaurants were running around the Meatpacking District completing a variety of challenges in hopes of winning the D'Artagnan Duckathlon. Starting from the James Beard Pop-Up (JBF LTD) in Chelsea Market contestants in the 6th annual Duckathlon set out to complete the 26 point itinerary in four hours time. 

Ariane Daguin, owner of D'Artagnan, created the Duckathlon 7 years ago to celebrate the company's 20th Anniversary (Last year the company hosted a slew of events to celebrate their 25th anniversary and did not have the Duckathlon). Every team is a winner and receives goodies including truffle butter, foie gras and even feathers-still-on birds! First, second, third places and the Best Dressed team all get official trophies featuring the D'Artagnan logo. 

Thanks once again to my careful Twitter use I was invited to join in the fun at this exclusive event as a "free-range" judge. I arrived at JBF LTD not quite sure what to expect, but looking forward to a day of duckingly good fun. I checked in with Lily Hodge, Director of Public Realtions for D'Artagnan. Teams arrived one by one. Some had matching shirts with jersey-style numbers and names on the back, others wearing quacking yellow beaks. An adorable rubber duckie dressed in a chefs coat tops the trophy that is awarded to the Best Dressed team, so most teams try to show some spirit and usually love of foie gras through their outfits. With my Duckathlon kit, complete with map, itinerary and rules for judging,  I set out to each challenge at 1:oopm to see how the teams were performing and find out what each trial involved. 

Of the 26 challenges 16 took place within Chelsea Market so most teams got to work on the ones inside before venturing out into the surrounding neighborhood. Many of the shops in the market hosted challenges. Favorites here include:

·     "Holy Crepe!" at the All-Clad Kiosk in the JBF LTD; teams must take turns flipping a 'crepe' (flour tortilla) in a frying pan, 5 flips per person and then pass the frying pan. Team with most total flips wins the challenge.
·      "Bread Archery" at Amy's Bread; contestants must throw baguettes (freshly made that morning) as if they were javelins without breaking them, team with the longest distance wins.
·     And every team's favorite "Armagnac Throwdown;" teams taste 4 different cups and must identify correctly which cup is not armagnac.

Once I made my way through the many "Duck Stops Here" locations inside, I headed straight to Colicchio & Sons, one of Top Chef judge Chef Tom Colicchio's restaurants, where teams had to complete two challenges. (I must admit, Colicchio & Sons is one of those places I've always wanted to go to eat, but being inside the stunning (literally stunning) dining room will sate my desire for a little bit, maybe I'll get to go during Restaurant Week.) When I arrived no team had come through yet. I did one of the challenges here-- "Six Point Craft Ales--" which involved tasting three different beers and  identifying which type of ale was which while being blindfolded. I only got one out of three! 

Next I headed up to the Highline. Though its hard to believe, this was my first time up on the Highline. Strange, when I even know just who will deliver take-out up there if I am lounging about for the day, thanks to Immaculate Infatuation. Up here teams had to first find Frank (no simple feat) and then identify the mushrooms in his basket by their common and Latin names. I did this challenge, too, and got about 1.5 correct (the morels and half point for the oyster mushroom, no Latin for me).

After finding Frank I popped in to The Biergarten at The Standard Hotel. This next challenge is not for the fervent vegan or vegetarian-- "How Big is the Suckling Pig?" By lifting a whole suckling pig teams had to guess as close as possible to the correct weight. Even though the little fella was very much not alive, I still thought the piglet was cute (and tasty looking). 

One of my favorite challenges was at Spice Market on W. 13th Street. The beautiful restaurant with lush exotic settings, lots of drapes and low-lights, had their challenge in one of their private rooms downstairs. The bright sunny day made it hard to adjust my eyes to the low light, but it fit the challenge: "Three Blind Spice." Blindfolded, in a dark room contestants were handed glasses filled with spices which they had to guess correctly. They could smell, touch and taste them. The winning team (you'll find out below!) was the only team to get all five of the spices right! 
Once the spices had been sniffed and tasted it was time to move over to one of the best spots on the itinerary, the famous Hogs & Heifers (yup, the bar that inspired Coyote Ugly. Yes, I've danced on the bar there!). Three of the challenges took place here: "Duckie Get Your Gun," "Tortilla Toque" and "Saucisson Dangler." 
For "Duckie Get Your Gun" two teammates used water guns to shoot plastic duckies over a hot pink line. Here Le Bernardin (yup, home of Chef Eric Ripert) tries their hand at it. 

"Tortilla Toque" involves one teammate wearing a toque and a second wearing a yellow flipper (you know, like a webbed duck foot). The flipper-wearer must toss a tortilla from the front of their foot to the top of the other teammates toque. On the right is a picture of team db Bistro Moderne (one of Chef Daniel Boulud's two restaurants to compete in the Duckathlon) with their tossed tortilla midair.

Just outside, one of the overall favorites of the whole day takes place: "Saucisson Dangler." One teammate wears a large white hoop skirt and a bra off the wall of the bar (ladies enjoy contributing to the Hogs & Heifers decor with their intimates). Then, with a D'Artagnan sausage on a rope tied between their legs, the player must dip the meat into a milk can as many times as possible. This one is always more amusing when a muscular sous chef steps up to the plate. 
The final three challenges before the after party all took place back at headquarters. I made my way to the D'Artagnan truck parked on the north side of Chelsea Market. Two of the most difficult challenges are played here: "A Flocking Good Time" and "Balls to the Wall." "A Flocking Good Time" asks the contestants to name each fowl hanging from the back door of the truck (again, not for the faint of stomach). 
"Balls to the Wall" is, you guessed it, about matching animal testicles with their previous owners. This challenge requires teams to do a little studying because it's not so easy to judge the beast by the balls. 
The final task required teams to have paid attention to all the kind D'Artagnan helpers throughout the day. Given pictures of three people they met along the way, teams had to identify them by name and, I believe, job title. After that, it was time to tally the outcomes and start the party! 
Running about the Meatpacking District was great fun, but the party was even better because I finally got to see all the teams together, take a tipple or two, and dig in to smoked duck, chicken, artisan bread, a true representation of cheeses and canelés! After 4 hours of being on our feet, we were all ready to chow down.

Ariane carefully tallied winners for each challenge and the overall winners:
The trophies waited patiently to be given out, not even a squeak out of the little yellow guy: 
And at long last all the teams received gifts of  delicious charcuterie and other delicacies and the grand awards were bestowed to this years champions:

Best Dressed: Le Cercle Rouge!
Wearing quack-tastic shirts, rubber duckie beads, 
duck hats and quacking beaks, they were the clear choice!

The Bronze: Le Cercle Rouge, encore!

The Silver: Le Bernardin!
I like how it looks like the woman in the center is wearing the hat from the sign!
And the winner of it all, for the THIRD year in a row:
(I over head Chef Lo speaking to her teammates before the Gold was awarded, 
she was under the impression they had not placed at all!)
Yup, that's Chef Anita Lo's restaurant, you may know her from Top Chef Masters.
All around the Duckathlon is a really amazing event. So much creativity and planning went into making it a success and I am thrilled to have been invited to be a part of it! The fun and joy of the food industry is allowed to come out and play here. The people who are normally working in the high pressure kitchens to create the best food in town have a chance to relax, be silly, and also show off their food chops. I'm so glad I was able to join in all the amusement!! 

There are many more pictures from the event, so check out my Facebook Page and D'Artagnan's Facebook Page to see additional photos.
Here is D'Artagnan's video of the 2011 festivities!: Duckathlon 2011 [Updated 06.12.2011]

Some fellow bloggers I joined at the event have written about the day as well: 
Cathy Barrow, aka Mrs. Wheelbarrow, one of the co-creators of Charcutepalooza: "Duckathlon VI-- D'Artagnan's Hot Ticket"  
To send you off, La Marseillaise performed by the Duckathlon band!

1 comment:

Erika Beth, the Messy Chef said...

Ha! I love how that photo of Le Bernardin's win DOES look like she's wearing the hat. I love that everyone had a great time and you totally summed it up nicely - it WAS great to see these foodies out of the kitchen having some fun and showing off there knowledge!