A Battle of the Chefs Decides Cleveland's Best Side for Diners
Editor's note: This story was originally published on April 29, 2016.
Cleveland’s restaurant renaissance has been widely recognized. But closer to home, east siders still argue with west siders about which side of the Cuyahoga River has the best cuisine.
Diners at a recent gourmet feast have cast their votes on the issue, and WKSU’s Vivian Goodman tallies the results in today’s Quick Bite.
Competition is fierce, but friendly, at the first-ever “East versus West” competition of Cleveland chefs.
More than a hundred diners have paid $135 a plate to sit in judgment after sitting down to tuna, steak, scallops, duck breast, braised oxtail and much more at Edwin’s in Shaker Square.
Eight chefs are competing. Four from each side of the Cuyahoga.
Too many cooks?
Edwin’s has a warm, friendly kitchen. But it’s not large enough for eight cooks to prepare their contributions to the multi-course meal. So the visitors work under a tent set up in the parking lot behind the restaurant.
It gets a little frantic in the tent as servers move hundreds of plates to the dining room. “Now! We have to get the food out! Are you ready? Let’s go, let’s go!”
But the chaos is all behind the scenes.
Serene for eaters
Relaxing smooth guitar jazz plays in the background as diner Ann Jester takes time to savor every bite of what Chef Ben Bebenroth is serving tonight: braised oxtail torchon, carrot puree, arugula and golden beet salad with pickled ramps.
Jester’s familiar with Bebenroth’s cuisine. “I eat at Spice Kitchen and Bar. So therefore I cross the river with great regularity.”
She’s an east sider who works on the West Side and thinks tonight’s event is good for both sides of Cleveland’s cuisine scene. “I want ... west siders to go east, east siders to go west, so it’s all good.”
A broadly smiling Brandon Chrostowski, Edwin’s founder, agrees. “It feels great as you can tell.”
Sold out quickly
It took him only three days to sell out the East versus West dinner. It’s not a fundraiser for Edwin’s Leadership and Restaurant Institute. Chrostowski paid the guest chefs for the food and their efforts. He’s just glad to have them meet his trainees and give his regular patrons a rare treat.
“It’s a privilege to have all the chefs here. It’s not often you get this many great palates under one roof.”
Most of all, he’s grateful for his colleagues’ continuing support of his socially conscious enterprise. Chrostowski hires ex-felons to work in his upscale restaurant and trains them in the art of French cuisine.
His fellow chefs have already welcomed many Edwin’s students into their own kitchens, and they’re getting a chance to observe the skills of other trainees at the “East Versus West” event.
“It’s amazing not only for the restaurant but for the students,” says Chrostowski, “because this is now, believe it or not, a lot of networking going on. Each one of the chefs here has already hired a student. So it’s another way to network and find that next step to your final goal.”
Andre Baird is in his final two weeks of the six-month training program. “And I am just so proud to be a
server here tonight. I’m going to intern at one of these fine-dining restaurants for two weeks and hopefully be employed there. I mean, everyone wants an Edwin’s student.”
Like a boxing match
The emcee for the contest shouts like a ring announcer and the crowd eats it up.
“Round three here we go! In this corner from the West. He’s from Black Pig. Mike Nowak! And then from the East, ladies and gentlemen, it’s surf and turf time with Chris Hodgson!”
Hodgson, chef-owner of Hodges in downtown Cleveland, adds creamed kale and potato to one of his signature dishes. “A classic steak dinner,” he calls it.
Meanwhile Steve Schimoler, chef- owner of Ohio City’s Crop Bistro, serves a duo of tuna and scallop sashimi paired with an Alsatian Riesling wine.
Schimoler lives on the West Side, "just a couple blocks from where the restaurant is.”
Chefs take sides
He has no hesitation in telling us his favorite side of town for dining. “Oh, the West Side. Hands down. I
mean you take downtown, and the West Side, Ohio City and all that -- it’s a great spot. But you know I have to be biased on that.”
Even Brandon Chrostowski, who lives a block away from his Shaker Heights restaurant, is slightly biased.
“Wherever the best food is that’s where I’ll go. So it doesn’t matter if it takes us down to South Akron, I’ll be there. But I’m rooting for the home team.”
Another east sider, Chef Doug Katz, didn’t have to come far to compete. His restaurant, Fire Food and Drink, is also at Shaker Square, just across the Rapid Transit tracks.
Shrimp and grits
Katz is big on local food. But the fresh shrimp he brings to the dinner came from Florida. He serves it with grits made from local corn meal, pickled Fresno chilis, local micro greens and maple-glazed local bacon.
“Give it up for Doug K. O. Katz!” yells the announcer. “Doug we just had your delicious shrimp. Why don’t you tell us more about it?"
“Alright, great,” says Katz. “So, we make our own bacon. We get local pork bellies from New Creation
Farm. We smoke it in our tandoor oven.”
Andrew Brickman enjoyed Katz’s bacon along with everything else from both sides of town. He has residences and favorite restaurants East and West. “My preference is for good food and good times. That’s my preference.”
Brickman’s a regular at Edwin’s who believes in the mission. The town house developer says he offered Brandon Chrostowski free use of one of his Little Italy properties for office space when the restaurant was getting started.
“And now to see what it’s become. It’s so satisfying. I wish there were more people as motivated as he is.”
Praise for the new French chefs
Chef Steve Schimoler of Crop Bistro also hands it to Chrostowski, especially for his students’ mastery of French cuisine.
“And that’s the thing, “says Schimoler. “To do a French menu with the level of detail and the discipline that goes into it. They are one of the better restaurants in the whole city. And that’s a testament to how hard they work at it, because it’s not easy.”
Hard, but satisfying work is something all of tonight’s chefs value, as well as each other’s company.
“We are good friends,” says Steve Schimoler. “We break bread. We have fun together, but anyone who’s in this business would be lying to say that they didn’t have to be competitive. That’s what it is. It’s all about doing a good job all the time, and hopefully better than that most of the time.”
Best second chance
That’s the work ethic Willie Rudd’s been developing. Now six weeks into Edwin’s training program, he’s grateful for what he calls the best second chance he’s had in a long time.
“I’m right now hoping to open my own restaurant with the skills that I learn from here. Hopefully with the connections that I have from Brandon, I can make it successful.”
And where would he put his restaurant? “I’m definitely coming to the East Side.”
That’s also the side that won the contest. But a rematch pitting East versus West is already in the planning stages.
This next one will be on the West Side.