ST. PETERSBURG — Shortly before 11 p.m., the restaurant doors open.
People in a line that started forming 30 minutes before begin to shuffle in. Couples on dates. Line cooks in kitchen clogs fresh off a shift. A group of ladies out for a night on the town. Most people head straight for the bar; others make their way to the back of the room to the open kitchen. They know where the action is going to happen.
It’s a standing-room-only kind of party on this Saturday night, with guests packed in like dinner plates, clutching wine glasses and cocktail tumblers while chatting over the steady background hum of downtown St. Petersburg’s lively weekend crowd. Trays of hors d’oeuvres are passed: cheese, charcuterie and pickles.
A few minutes before midnight, the event’s announcer begins to rally the guests, inciting shouts and screams from the group of revelers ready for the show to begin. Like boxers entering the ring, chefs Jason Ruhe of Brick & Mortar and Rob Reinsmith of Noble Crust swagger into the kitchen.
“Want to know what you’re cooking tonight?” the host asks the competitors.
He turns to the crowd, asks them the same question, this time with an expletive or two thrown in.
It’s 11:59 p.m., and things are about to get wild.
Il Ritorno owners David and Erica Benstock had been thinking about what it would take to host a culinary competition of their own for some time. They loved the Esquire show Knife Fight, and were looking for a way to bring the Tampa Bay area’s chefs together under one roof — something that would foster camaraderie rather than just competition for the scene’s increasingly diverse culinary players.
In May, following a remodel of their Central Avenue Italian restaurant’s kitchen, the couple hosted the first Midnight Chef Fight. It is part of a six-installment series they hope to grow into a yearly event, taking place every summer, during the off-season.
The rules are simple: Competing chefs are presented with two secret ingredients and have one hour to create as many dishes as possible. The chefs are also allowed to bring in one ingredient of their own, and are granted full use of Il Ritorno’s pantry. Very Chopped.
The secret ingredients are chosen by the host, and have included everything from peanut butter to monkfish liver. The most recent event on Aug. 10 featured Oaxacan grasshoppers, a.k.a. chapulines, and whole pheasants.
“For me, it’s not about, ‘How can I stump these guys?’ or ‘How can I trip them up?’” David Benstock said. “It’s just picking out two ingredients that work well in many ways together."
Emceeing the party is local culinary personality and former MasterChef contestant Jeff Philbin, whose high-octane energy has landed him gigs at similar events throughout the area.
Midnight Chef Fight is the latest in a string of chef-driven competitions to emerge in the Tampa Bay area, including the popular Epic Chef Showdown, a ticketed multiweek fundraising event that benefits local food rescue operation Feeding Tampa Bay.
Midnight Chef Fight also aims to raise funds for local charities. Tickets are $20 at the door, with the event’s proceeds going toward a charity of the competing chefs’ choice. Charities have included Feeding Tampa Bay and, most recently, Apple a Day, an organization that provides Apple devices like iPhones and iPads to pediatric cancer patients.
The similarities end there.
As the name implies, Midnight Chef Fight runs really late: The competition lasts until 1 a.m., the judge’s results are delivered about 15 minutes later, and the celebration can go on for several hours. Benstock estimated he usually gets home around 4 or 5 a.m.
And the evening’s tone is considerably more raucous, and not exactly PG-13, due in part to emcee Philbin’s profanity-peppered monologues, and in part to the free-flowing cocktails at the cash bar.
Philbin, who also hosts the Epic Chef Showdown, said participating in Midnight Chef Fight gave him a chance to branch out from the more traditional competition circuit.
“It’s been fun because it’s so different,” Philbin said. “It’s raw, it’s risque ... and just a totally different demographic. This allows for a completely different breed of foodies to be a part of it.”
Indeed, the event has managed to attract a diverse group of guests beyond the culinary community.
The roughly 130 people who attended the Aug. 10 event included chefs and industry professionals, family members and restaurant owners, groups of bar-hopping friends and passersby who happened to stumble in after a couple of drinks.
The makeup of judges and competitors is also distinct. While other competitions frequently pit sous chefs up against each other, Benstock’s goal was to get the more established executive chefs and chef de cuisines to battle it out.
“These are all fellow chefs that we respect, and probably 70 percent or 80 percent are no longer working the line,” David Benstock said. “Some of us haven’t cooked in a really long time — and to actually sit there and watch them (cook) and cheer them on … it’s really inspiring.”
As soon as the clock strikes 1 a.m., the utensils go down and the judges get to work on the dishes plated before them. Each dish is judged on a scale of 1 to 10 in three categories: creativity, execution and plating design.
In total, the chefs turn out five plates – three from Reinsmith and two from Ruhe. They range from a smoked pheasant, sausage and egg yolk-filled ravioli topped with chapulines from Ruhe to a pheasant cacciatore and a shaved summer squash salad with ras el hanout flatbread and whipped ricotta topped with toasted chapulines from Reinsmith.
After sampling a few bites, the plates are passed around the room. The dishes aren’t really intended for the guests, and there are no utensils in sight, but that doesn’t stop a group of eager onlookers — some friends, some perfect strangers — from digging in with their hands, picking up a piece of ravioli here, a crunchy grasshopper there. A woman licks her fingers and smiles.
After roughly 10 minutes of deliberating and an unfortunate name mixup, the judges deliver their verdict: Reinsmith is the winner.
The crowd cheers and the two chefs laugh and hug it out while an Il Ritorno employee walks over and hands the competitors a couple of beers. In the background, the music gets turned up. Someone at the bar pops a bottle of Champagne. The party goes on.
If you go
Midnight Chef Fight at Il Ritorno
Jonathan Atanacio of Elevage will compete against Jeffrey Jew of Stillwaters Tavern on Sept. 7. Joshua Breen of Annata will compete against Artem Kucherenko of Sola Bistro & Wine Bar on Oct. 26. $20 at the door. 449 Central Ave., Suite 101, St. Petersburg. (727) 897-5900.