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Gourmet food fight between top chefs raises $200,000

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(From left to right) Chefs Ryan Mitchell, Michael Buttacavoli, Ted Dorsey and Matthew Brennan compete during Tampa Bay Food Fight at The Coliseum in St. Petersburg on Tuesday. The event features chefs from the Tampa Bay area and benefitted Metropolitan Ministries. EVE EDELHEIT | Times

ST. PETERSBURG — The chefs came armed with their secret ingredients — pork rinds, truffle butter, pork bellies.

They donned their aprons and fired up the stoves.

But this was no typical restaurant kitchen. The chefs, from some of Tampa and St. Petersburg’s best restaurants, were chopping and sauteing inside a boxing ring, in front of a live audience.

It was part of the first Tampa Bay Food Fight, a head-to-head cooking competition that raised more than $200,000 for Metropolitan Ministries’ culinary school for at-risk students.

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The two teams — Team Tampa and Team St. Pete — raced against a clock at the Coliseum Tuesday night to impress the judges with the tastiest creations.

More than 500 spectators who paid $125 a ticket cheered for their respective side of the bay. Professional wrestler Titus O’Neil hosted, and a quiver of well-known chefs judged.

"They’re both strong teams. I think they’re both going to bring it tonight," said judge Marty Blitz, chef and co-owner of Mise en Place.

Each team had 15 minutes to plan an appetizer and an entree with chicken or beef, then 45 minutes to make them.

"I’m expecting a lot tonight," said judge Cory Bahr, a finalist in last summer’s Next Food Network Star reality show, who filmed parts of the Food Fight on Instagram Live.

Two chefs from each six-person team were allowed inside the ring at a time while the other four watched and advised through the ropes.

The set up led to some backseat driving:

"You don’t have to use them but there are some micro greens in there if you want them," Oxford Exchange chef Richard Anderson suggested to Cask Social Kitchen chef Antoine Ludcene as he was plating Team Tampa’s creations.

And some trash talking:

"No. Not at all. They think they are making beef tartare," joked chef Tyson Grant of Parkshore Grill when asked if he was worried that both teams were making the same appetizer.

More than 150 students have graduated from Metropolitan Ministries’ Inside the Box Culinary Arts Program since it began in 2015. They attend the 16-week intensive program at no charge and go on to work at restaurants such as Ulele, Mise en Place and the school’s catering company.

Tampa’s team also included Ryan Mitchell, of Fresh Kitchen, Chad Johnson of Haven and Elevage, Michael Buttacavoli of Cena, and Robert Masson of 717 South. Along with Grant, Team St. Pete chefs were Ted Dorsey of The Mill, Rob Reinsmith of Noble Crust, Luke Decker of Birchwood, Matthew Brennan of Paul’s Landing at The Vinoy and Jeffrey Jew of Stillwaters Tavern.

When time was up, Team Tampa offered up its version of steak tartare with curry and fish sauce and chicken carbonara with salsa verde for its entree. Team St. Pete countered with steak tartare with pickled mustard seeds, green apple and Parmesan and chive biscuits followed by crispy chicken Ramen with pickled mushrooms and foi gras butter.

Team Tampa won, by just two points.

Next year’s Food Fight rematch is already scheduled for Oct. 16.