© St. Petersburg Times
ST. PETERSBURG -- They came armed for battle with their instruments of destruction. Blenders, microwave ovens, hot plates, meat thermometers and gleaming cutlery. Twelve men of single purpose. Six in funny hats.
For hours in the afternoon they paced nervously at their stations and occasionally put down their pepper mills and snuck a glance at their opponents, careful not to show worry or fear.
To signal the battle was about to begin, and that considerable au jus would be spilled, a group of children dressed as chefs, waiters and waitresses danced on stage and clanged metal spatulas in time with the music. It was a wild, brutal scene.
The tension was palpable. It had a hint of fennel. And maybe sage.
The great John Terczak, a bald and burly man of considerable culinary skill, lifted his reading glasses and wiped the sweat from his brow.
"I," said the chef from Perch, "am ready."
And so began the 2nd annual Battle of the Bay Culinary Competition at the Coliseum Ballroom on Friday night. Two chefs from each of six of Tampa Bay's finer eating establishments gathered in a roped-off circle under the lights. Each restaurant would get 75 minutes to prepare a full-course meal.
But that was too easy. There was no risk in that. So each restaurant had to use "mystery" ingredients, which were revealed only seconds before the competition:
Several hundred people, most of whom paid $35 to attend the spectacle, crowded two and three deep behind the ropes, watching the masters work their magic. A flash of flame from a frying pan brought a chorus of oooohs.
"I carry garlic in my purse," admitted Lois Wright, a front-row observer who works as a server at Harvey's 4th St. Grill. "And a little knife to cut it. No, really. I'm serious.
"I watch the Food Network all the time. On my nights off, I cook. Cooking is therapeutic."
Not this night.
As the time ticked off the digital clock onstage, the chefs worked frantically to finish. And as the aroma of their work filled the ballroom, the crowd inched forward, pointing and smiling and straining at the ropes.
Terczak finished first, but that was not the objective. When the chefs were told to "step away from your plates," the decision was left in the hands of six judges. They would sample all six presentations and pick a winner. The chefs returned to their pacing as the eating began.
And then the announcement. Glasses were raised.
Perch, Grillmarks and Roy's won honorable mention. The Blue Heron was third. Marchand's Bar and Grill was second. And Armani's won.
Chef Massimo Patano described his use of the tenderloin, how he mixed snapper and Maine lobster in the meal, and his white chocolate dessert. But the real secret was something not found in a cookbook.
"I slept in a different room from my wife last night," he said.
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