Flames shot and grills sizzled last week as five top chefs from around the country battled it out during Radisson Blu Hotel's "FireLake Face-Off" contest at the Mall of America.
The competition was fierce as executive chefs from Radisson Blu's FireLake restaurants in Aruba, California, Chicago, Minneapolis and the Mall of America descended on Minnesota to produce a winning entre from a bundle of secret ingredients not revealed until right before the clock countdown.
The face-off was launched in part as a way to gin up excitement as Minneapolis-based Radisson Hotels Americas expands its upscale FireLake Grill House concept beyond Minnesota and into four other Radisson Blu hotels in the United States and the Caribbean.
How those additional locations perform will determine how aggressive Radisson is with further expansion. Radisson Blu has 328 global locations and is part of the much larger Radisson Hospitality AB in Brussels.
According to the National Restaurant Association, the timing of an expansion could be tricky because U.S. restaurant sales fell by a third last year to $659 billion. But at the same time, 110,000 restaurants closed down due to COVID, leaving an opening for newcomers as the economy rebounds.
Radisson officials said the timing of their restaurant outreach is good since COVID-weary consumers are increasingly vaccinated and craving to dine outside their homes again. "I know I for one have missed eating out," said Radisson Hotel Group Americas General Counsel Tanya Taylor. The chef competition "is a great way of reminding everyone that they can dine out."
To date, the FireLake expansion has already involved hundreds of staffers, intense training and thousands of dollars to ensure each new upscale restaurant launch is on point. Wednesday's competition coincided with training at the Radisson Blu at the Mall of America and was too good an opportunity to pass up, said Radisson Hotel Americas CEO Jim Alderman.
"When I heard the [chefs] were all flying in for training [at the Radisson Blu at the Mall of America], I said we have to do something like an 'Iron Chef' or a 'Chopped' competition," Alderman said referring to the popular TV food contests. "Let's take advantage of having all this talent in the same room. Why not make it fun?"
One month later, the aproned chefs were duking it out on flaming grills and sweating in the sweltering kitchen. The event was filmed before a live audience with "Twin Cities Live" TV anchor Elizabeth Ries serving as host.
The judges — Alderman, food reporter and cookbook editor Sue Zelickson and Second Harvest Heartland Community Engagement Manager Barb Brotherton — looked through the glass as the chefs transformed piles of food into palatable fare.
The winning steak and gorgonzola polenta dish, made by FireLake Chicago Executive Chef Leonard Ventura, will be featured between now and the end of the year in all four of Radisson Blu's FireLake restaurants in the United States plus the newest FireLake restaurant that opens in Aruba in April.
And 15% of the proceeds from the winning dish will be donated to Second Harvest Heartland in Minnesota and to food banks in Anaheim, Chicago and Aruba.
Brotherton said the effort should help. "We can turn $1 into three meals. Hunger is on the rise, and so everything we can do to address it" helps, she said.
For Radisson Blu, the event also injected some levity into weeklong training designed to teach the restaurant brand to newcomers.
"The idea is to grow FireLake so there is some consistency to all the locations," said Mike Tindal, Radisson Blu food and beverage director at the Mall of America. "We are so excited."
Chicago opened its FireLake restaurant one year ago. Anaheim followed in October. Aruba opens in the fall.
Minnesota launched the FireLake brand, opening the first restaurant in downtown Minneapolis' Radisson Blu Hotel in 2003. The second opened in 2013 at the Mall of America.
With so much FireLake experience here, Blu chefs and food managers from around the country flew in to learn more from the pros.
"I am confident I am going to win. I have the home-stage advantage," Minnesota-based Radisson chef Dinesh Jayawardena teased Radisson Blu Minneapolis Executive Chef Robert Foster as the two first took their stations at last week's event.
Jayawardena later served his seared steak, smoked heritage carrots with black cherry root, flambéed Belgium endives and red wine demiglaze to judges who nodded as they let the flavors sink in. "This is really good," Brotherton said.
Not to be outdone, Foster presented next, offering his grilled steak with smoked onion jam, parsnip chips, salsa verde and a mound of sautéed vegetables.
Anaheim chef Edgar Beas soon offered his take on steak, with poached asparagus, grilled scallions and mushrooms. Aruba chef Albert Raven paired his steak with grilled mushrooms, feta puree, confit tomatoes, smoked Mexican chilis and charred onions.
Raven, a FireLake chef in Dubai before transferring to Aruba's new Radisson Blu in April, said he was happy for this week's training and to see the FireLake expand.
"I love the brand and the concept: use the best produce, farm to table, and cooking on fire. In Dubai, we infused a bit more with fire. But every chef does it a little differently," Raven said.
Ventura from FireLake Chicago did it "differently" better than anyone. His version drew aaahs from the audience as he bestowed each judge with a small iron skillet of vegetables charred in bourbon and honey.
He also presented each with a cutting board bearing a grilled steak stabbed with an oversized knife and an eye-catching glass jar showcasing creamy polenta topped with purple vinegar, mushrooms and an invisible rosemary smoke that revealed only when the lid opened.
"That polenta and … Leonard's presentation with the rosemary smoke and that whole thing edged out everyone else slightly," Alderman said. "It was fantastic."