Pulapaka Wins Top Prize in New Orleans

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Pulapaka and PetersPulapaka, center, with wife, Jenneffer, and sous chef Derek Peters in New Orleans Friday. Photo courtesy Hari Pulapaka

Finally! A Central Florida chef has bested the cooks of New Orleans.

Hari Pulapaka, chef and co-owner of Cress in DeLand, won the first Chefs Taste Challenge as part of the Farm to Table International Conference, which winds up Monday at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in the Crescent City. According to the F2T website, the conference “explores the cultivation, distribution, and consumption of food and drink sourced locally.”

Pulapaka was one of nine chefs who competed Friday at the sold out event (a 10th contestant dropped out due to illness). The participants were charged with creating a dish from a list of supplied ingredients that the contestants selected in a sort of draft. Pulapaka selected whole redfish, green chilies from Hatch, NM, and eggplant.

Pulapaka, assisted by sous chef Derek Peters, presented a dish he called NOLA, for New Old Latin Asian, which featured redfish ceviche on top of Hatch green chile panna cotta, with a smoked redfish branade and eggplant mussaman, a mild curry. (Pulapaka is a native of Mumbai.)

Two highly regarded New Orleans chefs, Frank Brigtsen of Brigsten’s restaurant and Matthew Farmer of Apolline Restaurant, also competed. Other chefs included: Carmen Rodriguez, Lake Arrowhead Resort & Spa, Lake Arrowhead, CA; Craig Baker, Locale Eatery & Pub, Indianapolis; Joel Navejas, the Farmhouse, Fort Collins, CO; Joshua Calliano, Companion Bakery, St. Louis; Richard Jones, Green Door Gourmet, Nashville; and Rocky Durham, Santa Fe Culinary Academy, Santa Fe.

Judges for the Chefs Taste Challenge included: Sue Zemanick, chef at Gautreau’s in New Orleans; Brad Barnes, director of CIA Consulting at the Culinary Institute of America; Gary Prell, vice president of culinary development for Centerplate; Kevin Belton, chef at the New Orleans School of Cooking; and Izabela Wojcik, chef at the James Beard Foundation in New York.

It’s the James Beard Foundation’s annual chef awards, of course, that continually overlooks Central Florida chefs, usually in favor of those from New Orleans, which competes with Florida in the South Region category for Best Chef. While several local chefs, including Pulapaka, have been nominated for an award as semifinalists, none have made it to the finals, let alone take home the award.

With this win, perhaps the Beard Award judges will finally start taking our chefs more seriously.