Fancy Tubers

Grilled Cheese Reigns Supreme at Truffle Masters

Austin Simmons wins big with a humble take on truffle.

By Mai Pham February 1, 2018

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Grilled cheese sandwich made with butter-toasted brioche, a three-cheese blend of house-cultured cream, aged comte and gruyere, and shaved black truffle by Austin Simmons of Hubbell & Hudson.

Image: Mai Pham

One of the most expensive delicacies on the planet, truffles are revered for their aphrodisiacal aroma and distinctive, heady flavor. A type of tuber that grows underground in moist climates, part of what makes truffles so coveted is their scarcity. But the true allure lies in the truffle’s ability to elevate a dish as simple as a salad into something otherworldly.

For the last four years, Houstonians have been treated to a truffle extravaganza like no other. Sponsored by truffle importer Diane Roederer of the Houston-based DR Delicacy, the Truffle Masters is not just a charity fundraiser, but a chef competition wherein the feature ingredient is fresh black truffle.

The prize for winning such a competition? A cool kilogram of fresh black truffles worth a whopping $1,500.

This year’s event took place this past Monday night at The Astorian. Each of the 22 chefs who competed were gifted a pound’s worth of fresh black winter truffles to play with. Bite-sized samples were served to crowd of 500 attendees.

Whose dish reigned supreme?

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Roasted Indian Creek Mushrooms with truffled foie gras stems and house-made black truffle caviar by Jose Ruiz of A'Bouzy.

Image: Mai Pham

The judging took place on a blind basis. Six of the highest scoring dishes were tasted again in a second round, with a final round of judging to determine the winner. Each dish earned up to 10 points for taste, 5 points for presentation, 5 for creativity and up to 10 points of use of truffle. As one of the 12 judges tasked with scoring the entries, I was looking for something that was not just creative and presented beautifully, but which made the best use of truffle.

Third place winner Jose Ruiz of A’bouzy wowed with a dish of roasted Indian Creek Mushrooms with truffled foie gras stems and house-made black truffle caviar. This was my pick for the creative and beautifully presented of the night, which fellow judge Megha Tejpal of Houston Citybook remarked that the dish reminded her something you might experience at a progressive restaurant like Noma. For me, the dish brought to mind a dish called “A Walk in the Forest” at the two Michelin-star Atelier Crenn in San Francisco. The use of mushrooms and foie gras also highlighted the earthiness of the truffles. Outstanding.

Another judges’ favorite for its sublime blend of textures and flavors was the black truffle and foie gras macaron served over strawberry port jam and squid ink truffle gelato by Danny Trace of Potente. Garnished with 24-karat gold dust, taking a bite of the macaron followed by a spoonful of gelato resulted in a one-two punch to the senses that was altogether crispy, earthy, cold, sweet and umami. Exemplary.

Other noteworthy entries for presentation included the winter soup "Escudella" with poached quail egg, shaved truffle and mushroom air by Luis Roger of BCN Taste & Tradition. Served in a clear glass surrounded by smooth white rocks, the plating had a sculptural quality that evoked land and sea. Chocolate-covered foie gras lollipops, with duck pastrami and truffle by Jose Hernandez of Lucienne, was playful and fun, reminiscent of a cake pop. A cassoulet topped with freshly shaved truffles, served in red mini cocottes by Ryan Bouillet of A Fare Extraordinaire, was also visually arresting.

And there was more: The meat-centric entries of note included a seared wagyu New York strip served over crispy truffled hashbrowns and finished with lobster infused truffle sauce by Jeff Taylor of Steak 48; and a rich dish of Marble Ranch Smoked Short ribs served over truffled farro, with fresh uni and black truffle sabayon by Teddy Lopez of Killen’s STQ.

Eggs are known to marry well with truffle, a fact that undoubtedly played a hand in David Skinner’s entry from Eculent, which featured a sous vide poached egg with truffled bread foam and a crispy prosciutto pigtail. Dimitri Voutsinas of Emmaline also took to the egg theme with a truffled egg custard and truffle egg espuma served inside a real egg shell.

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Guayaquil chocolate, caramelized truffled honey panna cotta, and zephyr caramel crémeux by Juan Pablo Calubri of Yauatcha.

Image: Mai Pham

In the end, there could only be one winner. It wasn’t the most complicated dish that won. The most expensive ingredients—king crab, gold flakes, uni, short rib, foie gras—didn’t find favor either. The dish that won was the one that you took a bite of and couldn’t stop eating, a humble grilled cheese sandwich.

Entitled “French fromage sandwich,” chef Austin Simmons of Hubbell & Hudson in The Woodlands won the first-place prize and a kilogram of fresh black truffles by shaving fresh truffle over a three-cheese blend of cultured cream, aged Comte and Gruyere cheese, and serving it on butter-toasted brioche. The dish was inspired by something similar he had at chef Emmanuel Renaut's three-star Michelin Flocons de Sel restaurant in the Haute-Savoie village of Mégève in the French Alps.

Pastry chef Juan Pablo Calubri of Yauatcha placed second for a dessert made of Guayaquil chocolate, caramelized truffled honey panna cotta, and zephyr caramel crémeux. 

Ryan Lachaine of Riel won the People’s Choice award for his potato leek and truffle pierogi with creme fraiche and chive.

Proceeds for the evening benefited the Casa de Esperanza, the House of Hope for Children.

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