All through September, twenty chefs around town have been challenging each other to sell weekend specials made with unusual ingredients as part of the Culinary Cricket Challenge. Sales of each dish have gone directly toward funding food-skills and nutrition-education programs at Cooking Matters Colorado, which is dedicated to ensuring that no child goes without nutritional meals. While the idea was inspired by the appearance of crickets — a fast-growing alternative protein source — on a few Denver menus, most of the ingredients in the month-long challenge have been a little more conventional (with a few notable exceptions). And since this was a challenge, each dish has been judged, and the winners will be announced at the Cricket Ticket party from 4 to 7 p.m. on Sunday, October 2, at Avanti Food & Beverage, 3200 Pecos Street.
Restaurants were divided into five separate categories, each with its own judge. I was assigned to the "Animal Lovers" group, which consisted of Blackbelly, Old Major, Butcher's Bistro and Beast + Bottle — all known for their butchering programs and nose-to-tail cooking. The Cricket Challenge brought out a different side of the chefs, though; three of the four dishes I sampled were seafood-based, and none had standard farmhouse proteins.
At Blackbelly, Chef Hosea Rosenberg was challenged with powdered popcorn butter. He created a Southern-inspired dish of shrimp and grits with greens, mushrooms and housemade sausage. The whole shrimp were grilled and dusted with the salty, buttery powder — Rosenberg's version of "popcorn shrimp."
Sausage, grits and popcorn-dusted shrimp at Blackbelly.
Chef Tyson Holtzheimer of Butcher's Bistro was challenged with sea bream, which he and his crew turned into a delicate sea bream roulade stuffed with sea bream mousse and served over a sea bream fumet. Since the fish falls under the same classification as porgie, Holtzheimer named his dish "the Porgie Orgy."
Justin Brunson and Amos Watts of Old Major drew the oddest challenge ingredient of the group: scorpions. Despite the difficulty of serving the creepy crawler, the chefs turned out a beautiful heirloom tomato salad with microgreens and a saffron aioli. The tempura-fried scorpions had little flavor of their own, but acted as crunchy croutons atop the salad. The chefs even offered a beer from Black Shirt Brewing to pair with the scorpion dish.
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The last challenge of the month was roasted peanuts, given to chefs Paul Reilly and Peter Varkonyi of Beast + Bottle. The two selected silver carp, an invasive species throughout much of the eastern U.S., and created peanut-crusted carp ribs with bacon collards.
The winner will be announced at Sunday's party. For $40 ($45 at the door), you'll get two drinks from the Avanti bar as well as appetizers from Avanti's eateries. Chef Kevin Grossi, who runs The Regional inside the food hall, is one of the organizers of the fundraiser and will be on hand — along with other participating chefs — to talk about the event and the individual dishes created throughout the month. And each $40 raised will teach a Colorado family cooking and shopping skills to make nutritious meals on a budget. Tickets can be purchased on the No Kid Hungry website.
Hop on in — we promise we won't make you eat bugs!