The fifth and final borough showdown in the Daily News' FDNY Five Alarm Cookoff Competition was the hottest to date, thanks to the culinary chops of the trio of firefighting cheftestants.
All three Manhattan competitors - Steve Brunner from Ladder 36 in Inwood, Scott Worontzoff of Engine 58 in Harlem and William (Billy) Benitez of Ladder 1 in Tribeca - are cookoff veterans and graduates of culinary training programs. On Sunday they worked the stoves at New York City's Food and Finance High School on W. 50th St. as if stoking the flames was their usual goal instead of putting them out.
The most experienced was Brunner, 42, who took home the borough win for the event, which was sponsored by Municipal Credit Union and Best Buy. The latter gave the firefighter a 52-inch flat-screen TV to take back to his uptown firehouse. Better still, he now moves on to the "Top Chef"-style finale on the "Rachael Ray" show, to be aired Friday, Nov. 13.
Her hovering camera crews and the probing questions of emcee Sissy Biggers - best known as host of Food Network's "Ready Set Cook!" - added fuel to the fire on Sunday. But true to FDNY form, the guys didn't blink, despite having only an hour to cook and present their entrees, which were chosen from a pack of suggestions last month.
"When I showed up, I didn't think the recipes were going to be this elaborate," said Landmarc chef and co-owner Marc Murphy, joining at the judges' table Salvatore Rizzo, the owner of De Gustibus Cooking School at Macy's; Ken Currey, senior manager for business development at Municipal Credit Union; and chef Grant Springer, an instructor with the culinary program at Food and Finance High School.
All four were allowed to poke around the kitchens while the firefighters stirred and sautéed.
Luckily, the judges approved of what they saw. "I'm already seeing scallops seared off correctly," said Murphy. "I see caramelization. I like that."
Those properly cooked shellfish were the work of Brunner, who calmly hand-rolled scallop, shrimp and Asian vegetable-stuffed spring rolls with 20 minutes left on the clock.
With tidy bowls of neatly chopped ingredients on display at his station, Brunner plated his dish with a few dainty sprigs of green onion and a sprinkle of sesame seeds while the cameras rolled. At the same time, he walked viewers through his dish: the paper-thin glass noodles he used both inside the rolls and as a bed for the finished dish; the rice paper shells he soaks in water to form the wraps; the final drizzle of sauce made from teriyaki sauce and a quickie stock from the leftover shrimp shells.
That's a trick, Brunner told emcee Biggers, "my grandmother taught me."
Brunner doesn't just save the good stuff for competition. His fellow firefighters are savvy diners, too.
"You can't just throw Spam on a plate," he joked. At the firehouse, he said, the guys like to pitch in to make the dish, cracking wise on the lack of skill some show in hand-forming the rolls.
While Brunner's banter drew the cameras, Biggers checked in on the other contestants. "I'm just going to keep my head down and keep cooking," Worontzoff, 40, told her. "But I'm sure in 45 minutes I'll be scratching my head."
Still, creating flavor under pressure is part of his usual kitchen routine. "I learned early on you need to be ready to drop your spatula and spoon and get on that rig," said Worontzoff, "and you don't know when you're going to be back."
His cheddar-cheese-topped barbecued chicken enchiladas and bacon-chipotle refried beans are perfect for just that scenario.
Topped with a complex mix of brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, cumin, tomato and unsweetened chocolate, they went way beyond the ordinary El Paso microwave meal in terms of technique, though Worontzoff claimed a simpler strategy was at hand. "You throw bacon and cheese in there," he laughed, "and 'wa-hoo!'"
Bacon was also a not-so-secret ingredient in Billy Benitez's restaurant-ready dish of seared striped bass topped with corn and bacon cream sauce and a handful of cherry tomatoes, dressed in balsamic vinegar and slivers of basil.
The other was the bass, which Benitez, 31, usually catches himself. "I went fishing one night on a guy's boat, and we ended up with a ton of striped bass," said Benitez. "But fish in the firehouse, some guys kind of cringe at it."
He decided to dress it up with a super-crispy skin and that ultra-decadent sauce, which he purees in a blender.
Benitez, by the way, is already earning something of a name for himself as a firehouse cooking contender, though all three of Sunday's cooks have earned kudos for their work outside the firehouse.
"I was impressed by their creativity and the types of dishes and cuisines they made," said judge Rizzo. "They really go above and beyond the boundaries. They're not just doing steak and potatoes."
"I thought I was just coming here to eat chili," agreed Murphy, "but it's much more than that."
In fact, emcee Biggers even had to remind a few of the judges to slow down after the first dish.
"The clean plate club," she warned, "is not part of this competition."
Recipe: Pan-Seared Scallop and Shrimp Asian Spring Rolls Serves: 10 Prep Time: 60
Appliances: 1 basic medium sauté pan, large nonstick skillet, 2-quart sauté pan
1/2 pound 16/20 count shrimp
1/2 pound fresh large sea scallops
1/4 cup sesame oil
2 cups of bok choy or Chinese (Savoy) cabbage, cut crosswise
1/2 cup julienned carrots
1/2 cup julienned sweet red pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
2 tablespoons chopped fresh garlic
1/2 cup julienned shiitake mushrooms
1/2 cup dark soy sauce
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup julienned scallions
1 cup cooked Asian bean threads
20 10-inch round sheets of rice paper
1/2 cup toasted sesame seeds
1/2 cup hoisin sauce
1/2 cup duck sauce
Season the shrimp and scallops with salt and pepper and sear in half the sesame oil. Let cool and chop. Cook bok choy, carrots, red pepper, ginger, garlic and mushrooms until soft and tender in remaining oil. Place in a colander and reserve the drained liquid. Add 1/2 the dark soy sauce to the drained broth and reduce by half. Thicken with a mixture of cornstarch and the remaining soy sauce. Combine cooked vegetables and seafood, then add scallions, bean threads and reduced vegetable broth.
Moisten a rice-paper sheet in hot water, place about 3 ounces of mixture in center and carefully and tightly roll burrito (or egg-roll) style. Cover rolls with a moistened paper towel and let set for 5 minutes. Gently roll the spring rolls in a plate with toasted sesame seeds to lightly coat the outside. Serve with hoisin and duck sauces.