Christine Nunn, chef-owner of Picnic Caterers, a popular lunch spot in Emerson, defeated last year's winner, Joe Cerniglia of Campania Restaurant in Fair Lawn, in the second annual competition. The decision from the four judges was unanimous.
Nunn won the Iron Chef-like contest the way she won her two preliminary matches, putting contemporary spin on French classics. Working with a secret ingredient of honey, she presented the four judges with a menu of foie gras, salad Nicoise, poussain and a chocolate torte for dessert.
The seared foie gras, on slices of poached pear and a square of puff pastry, was finished with a blueberry honey and white wine sauce. The salad Nicoise, served deconstructed with such fun touches as a hard-cooked quail egg and watercress instead of Boston lettuce, had honey in every bite, from the crust on the tuna to the dressing.
The poussain, a young chicken, with a honey glaze had unevenly cooked skin, but that was the only flaw. It tasted like the best of Thanksgiving dinner, with Brussels sprouts, honey-glazed carrot sticks and a cranberry chutney. The chocolate torte had honey replacing sugar, as a more subtle way to present the featured ingredient. It was served with a creamed honey ice cream and a chocolate-honey truffle.
When looking at the score sheet, Nunn's margin of victory came from taste, which accounted for 50 percent of the score. Her dishes were presented simply on stark white plates, while Cerniglia had more elaborately dressed plates and earned slightly higher scores for presentation. Both chefs had similar scores for the other factors considered by judges -- degree of difficulty, mastery of cooking skills and innovative use of the featured ingredient.
Judges were certified master chefs Thomas Griffiths and Ken Arnone from the Culinary Institute of America, Susan Sherrill, the food editor of (201) magazine, and myself.
Nunn defeated Carmine Spinazzola of South City Grill and Joe Macri of Hennessy Tavern in Jersey City in the preliminary rounds. As last year's winner, Cerniglia had a bye to the final, where again, he impressed judges with his passionate and elaborate presentation.
His first round was a tasting of three honeys with varied presentations of blue cheese, goat cheese and homemade ricotta. For the second round, he seared, then smoked large scallops, crusted them in hazelnuts, and paired them with an apple, fennel and mint slaw, dressed with a honey dressing.
Cerniglia's third course was a wonderfully cooked Hudson Valley duck with a savory farro adorned with roasted golden beets. Dessert was centered around a unique pan-fried brioche sliced topped with almond sorbet, along with honey-sweetened tea.
Nunn, like Cerniglia last year, receives a trophy and bragging rights, as well as the opportunity to return next year.