Nickel City Chef, Buffalo's homegrown live cooking competition, heads into its third season next month after adding satisfying new ingredients -- nationally known judges and a slicker show for attendees.
Nourished by cable television's cooking competition craze and local diners' growing appreciation of risk-takers among the Buffalo restaurant scene, Nickel City Chef might be poised for its tastiest run yet. Tickets go on sale Friday at nickelcitychef.com.
Celebrity judges for the four-show season will include Kevin Brauch, host of Fine Living Network's "The Thirsty Traveler" and floor reporter for Food Network's "Iron Chef," the show that inspired Nickel City Chef.
Another is Regina Schrambling, an acerbic Manhattan-based food writer and blogger who television star Anthony Bourdain calls "the Angriest Person Writing About Food." Schrambling's "consort," photographer Bob Sacha, hails from Kenmore, so they get to Buffalo three or four times a year.
Schrambling spares no criticism of corporate restaurant chains and food media puffery, but she loves Buffalo dining, with its profusion of family-owned places. "I really believe if you could get there in an hour or two on a train, Buffalo would be the sixth borough [of New York City]," she said.
She's joining Nickel City Chef as a judge for the April 10 show because she's interested in seeing the new breed of Buffalo chef move under pressure.
"The chefs in Buffalo are a breed apart, as far as I'm concerned," Scrambling said. "They really do care, and they're one-on-one almost with their customers. They're facing these people. They have to keep them happy."
Schrambling's general disdain for the current flood of televised cooking competitions has been tempered, she said, by the realization that those shows are inspiring a new generation of home cooks. "I do notice it's making Americans more aware of food," she said.
(Besides Brauch and Schrambling, judges from outside the area include chef Don Salamone of Johnny Brenda's Tavern in Philadelphia, chef Matt Mytro of Cleveland, and two Toronto food writers, Ivy Knight and Mary Luz Mejia.)
In Buffalo, Nickel City Chef may have helped broaden the possibilities for restaurantgoers by encouraging adventurous chefs while helping inform potential customers about their creations.
"Four or five years ago I knew chefs who were nearly out of their mind with frustration because they couldn't convince their own diners that they might want to eat something besides chicken breast-laced mixed greens or bruschetta appetizers," said Nickel City Chef organizer Christa Glennie Seychew. "It took us a few years, but the Buffalo restaurant scene is now flush with young talent, risk-takers and some pretty crazy food and drink options."
Seychew, whose company Feed Your Soul runs Nickel City Chef, said that the series was designed more as a showcase than a guaranteed money-maker, and has yet to turn a profit. But it has succeeded at other goals, she said, including showing many of the region's most enthusiastic restaurant customers that Buffalo food can be worthy of their awe.
"To me, it is very important that Western New Yorkers understand that we have amazing chefs and dedicated farmers right here in Buffalo," she said.
Her message: "We shouldn't spend too much energy idolizing chefs whose restaurants we'll never eat in, when people worthy of our appreciation are cooking their guts out down the street."
Nickel City Chef also showcases local farmers and food producers with its "secret ingredient" the dueling chefs must exploit. The decision to use native ingredients, instead of the often-luxurious truffles, foie gras and exotic fish that are mainstays of "Iron Chef" contests, comes from Seychew's goal of using the show to illuminate not only those cooking, but those working to provide ingredients with integrity.
That's included Spar's sausage from Amherst Street; Oles Farm potatoes from Corfu, Genesee County; and Singer Farms dried Balaton cherries from Appleton, Niagara County.
The series has also provided exposure to specialists like Chautauqua County's Green Heron Growers, shiitake mushroom farmers; heritage breed pork from Lockport's T-Meadow Farms; and Concord grape puree and concentrate from the Westfield-based Grape Growers Cooperative.
Nickel City Chef has also given its competitors a chance to demonstrate their skills to an audience filled with customers that any chef would like to find in their restaurant. The home team includes Krista Van Wagner of Curly's in Lackawanna; J.J. Richert of Torches in Kenmore; and Adam Goetz of Sample on Allen Street.
Founding Nickel City Chef Paul Jenkins, whose Tempo was recently named one of the top 50 Italian restaurants in the U.S. by reservation site Open Menu, stepped down recently. Chef Brian Mietus of Bacchus, one of four challengers to win a bout, becomes the new Nickel City Chef at the March 6 event.
Buffalo-born Mietus started selling hot dogs at Curt's Stop Inn in Woodlawn before going to culinary school, earning his fine-dining bones in Vail, Colo., before returning to Buffalo as the executive chef at Oliver's. At Bacchus since 2005, he's developed a menu of locally focused dishes that harmonize with the restaurant's extensive wine list.
"I definitely think there is a Buffalo restaurant scene, and [Nickel City Chef] contributes to it," he said. In the decade he worked in Colorado and elsewhere, there didn't seem to be much innovation in Buffalo restaurants, but since his return he's changed his mind. "There's a lot of great chefs doing a lot of great things here," he said.
The Nickel City Chef experience gives chefs a chance to show their stuff in front of an audience of perfect potential customers. "It's all foodies," he said.
Now he's eager to pit his skills against some of the top chefs in Western New York.
"I think everybody in our business is somewhat competitive -- I've worked in great kitchens across the country and in Buffalo, and it's the same mentality," Mietus said. "You have a great night of service, and you say, 'I'd put up my crew against anybody.' "