All down to a doughnut!

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Peking Duck with a smoked duck and cherry salad

FOR once we got it right. After three years judging a heat in Whirlow Hall Farm Trust’s annual Sheff’s Kitchen contest, the city’s answer to MasterChef, top chef Cary Brown and I voted the same way as the diners who packed into the farm’s little cafe on a hot and sultry night. And, just like them, by a single point.

For us it all came down to a doughnut. But we’ll get to that later.

It’s always fun judging this contest. As someone who used to scoff food for a living it’s nice to be able to do it for charity, in this case for the city’s disadvantaged children who get a taste of country life down on the farm.

Two chefs battle it out to provide a three course meal on a chosen theme to 40 or so diners, knowing that one of them has got to lose. They’re giving up their time running busy kitchens so in my book they deserve a round of applause before they start.

So does Cary. Still in his chef’s whites, he whizzed in from cooking at a local grandee’s wedding. Where? Cary was a little unsure. He got there by satnav. It turned out it was Bawtry.

As for me, I strolled in after scrumping the farm’s solitary medlar tree in the car park.

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Coronation crab cocktail

The chefs on the menu were Leslie Buddington, the man in charge at the award-winning Brocco boutique hotel since it opened, up against social enterprise Blend Kitchen’s head honcho Chis Hanson on Pinstone Street.

The theme for the night was East Meets West Fusion Food which gave the chefs carte blanche to do anything they wanted. And they pretty much did. Although it’s for fun, as judges we take it seriously. After all, we’re the chaps who last year were both blown away by a course we rated dish of the night but still gave the prize to the other chef!

Very seriously for Cary. He can get very technical on a single mouthful, analysing it ingredient by ingredient. This is a man who would give a round of beans on toast the third degree. As for me, I ask deep questions such as “Do I like it?”

We kicked off with Leslie’s miso glazed cod in a ‘pea and ham’ soup, where the pea was replaced by the very oriental edamame, versus Chris’s Coronation crab, a sort of crustacean arancini or bon bon. We had different scores but not by much.

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Miso-glazed cod

For the main course it was Chris’s impressive rump of lamb, with a touch of tandoori, up against Leslie’s beautifully judged orientally flavoured duck breast partnered with a refreshing duck and cherry salad. Chris had married his dish with ‘pommes Anna’ and mustard seed, really a sort of hot pot as the spuds topped more lamb, this time shank. Difficult to separate the two.

So it all came down to dessert. Would it be Chris’s very rich cardamom-spiked mousse (and Cary is a chocoholic) or Leslie’s Sichuan pepper parfait with a mandarin doughnut and salted caramel popcorn?

That chocolate was good and the cardamom came through but was it more ganache than mousse? We expected spiciness from the pepper but what we got was a delicate perfumed flavour. Very nice. Too bad about the over salty popcorn but, hey, that little doughnut is a goer.

And so, by a single point, not more than a mouthful, it was the doughnut wot won it! Well, sort of . .

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Judges and chefs: From the left, me, Cary, Chris and Leslie

Charlie’s secret weapon: Ready Brek!

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Stephen Wallis’s ‘last night’s curry’  @clearmediasheff

CHEF Cary Brown is waffling on . . . about waffles. “Right on trend,” he coos, looking at his plate. It’s a reworking of a reworking of a classic Southern USA dish, duck with waffles.

There’s a tasty duck confit, a shiny bronze coloured Belgian waffle, some slinky bok choi in a nod towards China because when you think of duck it’s either confit or crispy, and a plummy sauce. And it’s lovely.

He and I are judging a heat at Whirlow Hall Farm Trust’s annual Sheff’s Kitchen cookery competition, in which the area’s leading chefs cook off for the charity with a bit of a laugh.

Tonight Charlie Curran, chef-patron of the highly rated Peppercorn on Abbeydale Road South, and Stephen Wallis, Whirlow’s own head chef, are going head to head on the theme, Flavours of Breakfast for 50 paying guests. So we are looking for wit and imagination and some good cooking.

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Charlie’s Curran’s assiette made us smile

There is plenty of that but we get the result wrong! We hand the prize to Charlie but there’s barely the thickness of a spatula in it, it’s so close. The diners have other ideas and give it to Stephen. Cary and I also got it ‘wrong’ last year so Whirlow may not be asking us back!

Cary, who seemingly has had more restaurants than I’ve had hot dinners and is now wowing them at Barlow Woodseats Hall, is looking for technical skill and expertise, among other things. With some 1,400 meals under my belt while reviewing professionally for the Sheffield Star, I’ll be looking at it from the angle of a seasoned diner. The two approaches are not always the same but should come up with the same result.

With the theme of breakfast in mind, Charlie gets his duck main course on the menu by using the waffle as the hook. For best results eat a bit of saucy duck with the waffle so the flavours soak in.

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Charlie’s duck

Stephen, remembering the mornings after the nights before some beer-soaked curry evenings and reheating the left-overs for breakfast, does a clever riff on Ruby Murray. There’s a roundel of chicken stuffed with lentil dahl, a fish bhaji of tilapia and a ‘tandoori potato’ plus the usual accompaniments, chutney, coriander and a sliver of poppadom.

As last year, Stephen sportingly handed over his kitchen to Charlie and worked from the store across the courtyard. Both chefs were given a £150 budget and had a sous to help: Charlie’s was Jamie McGonigle while Stephen had Amy Lee.

Stephen opens his menu with that breakfast favourite, kippers. He did it all from scratch. He made his own kippers, cold smoking the herrings and turning them into little cylinders of delicate pate, accompanied by a slug of Bloody Mary and brioche. There was a lot of work in that dish.

Charlie went for a mini croissant and a coffee cup filled with a light, lustrous chicken liver parfait ‘coffee’ topped by a cream froth.

While we are not comparing scores it is obvious they are close so it all comes down to the last course. Stephen, riffing on croissants with marmalade, does a yumptious whole orange cake partnered with croissant ice cream covered in an almond crumb, the sort of dish which would be the highlight of a posh afternoon tea.

But Charlie’s makes me smile, then laugh. That’s got to be worth an extra point. His assiette, entitled cereal killer, includes a yoghurt panna cotta, treacle tart and a cheeky little porridge soufflé.

Both Cary and I agree, it’s the porridge wot won it for Charlie but it was as close as a rolled oat. We compliment him afterwards.

“You know what, it was Ready Brek in that soufflé!” he says.

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Parade des Chefs: Stephen, Amy, Charlie and Jamie

*Earlier versions misspelt Stephen’s surname. Apologies.