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Open Stove V: It’s cans! They were just cans!

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First: Free corned beef to any commenter who can successfully identify the classic movie quoted in the headline.

Onto the non-literal meat: The fifth installment of COOK’s Open Stove series, which sets two Philly kitchen up-and-comers on a collision course beset with culinary booby traps, had a bit of theme. Yes, the unwelcome surprises, overall confusion and indecorous liquor consumption that have characterized previous installments were present, but OS Numero Cinco boasted something else entirely: cans. Each of the secret ingredients — competitors are allowed to pre-prepare an amuse bouche and a dessert, with apps and entrées up in the air — came vacuum-sealed, perhaps last thing a professional chef wants to be handed.

How did the personnel fare? Damn well.

The competitors: In the red corner, Ryan Harrison (above, left) a CIA-trained member of the Vendy-winning Smoke Truck team who’s also making headway with Jersey Gina’s Gems, the South Jersey specialty farm whose products are carried at COOK. And in the blue corner: Greg Garbacz (above, right), sous chef at past COOK visitor Kevin Sbraga‘s hit Sbraga, and, as it goes, the former chef of COOK kingpinette Audrey Claire Taichman‘s Audrey Claire. (Seems GG has a thing for eponymous restaurants, no?)

This is quite the interesting Open Stove matchup. Harrison has worked with nationally recognized chefs like John Besh and Michael Mina and Philly heavies like Jason Cichonski at Ela, but his food remains soulful and straightforward — literally homegrown, as he came to COOK armed with next-level heirloom tomatoes and other produce from his farm in Cinnaminson. Garbacz has a little more whimsy in his cooking approach, picked up at local stops like Meritage and Supper. The stylistic difference between the two competitors was apparent from go — take a look at Garbacz’s tiny pizzas (top), served to the eager-to-eat crowd in adorable Sbraga-branded mini-boxes, versus Harrison’s hearty braised oxtail taco (bottom), topped with tomatoes, shallots and chives he grew himself.

Everyone enjoyed their amuses while Harrison and Garbacz laid in wait. Then, to paraphrase Tracy Jordan, came the funcooker: The appetizer-course secret ingredient, Carnation sweetened condensed milk, which produced visible “WTF do you want me to do with that?!” grimaces on the faces of both chefs. (Knowing how cruel of a selection this was, Philly Mag food editor Jason Sheehan later threw in Himalayan pink salt to temper the treacly treat.) Harrison tossed raw hamachi in a sauce made with the condensed milk for a mixture that resembled a Peruvian leche de tigre ceviche, plating that alongside larger slices of the tuna and gorgeous pink brandywine tomatoes. Garbacz and his sous chef Michael “Rollo” Rouleau, meanwhile, got busy on a sauce that cut the thick liquid with smoked paprika, vinegar and citrus. It accompanied a mini crabcake and hunks of lump crab simply poached in garlic and chives.

The app course went over quite well, which was a boon for the competitors given the secret ingredient for their main course: Spam! As a quick personal aside, I grew up eating this much-maligned stuff (it’s as good as currency in the Philippines) and was wholeheartedly excited to see it unveiled. The reveal elicited a few gasps from the crowd (“WHAT ISSSSSS IT?”), but the chefs remained steadfast — that is, until Sheehan stopped Harrison and Garbacz mid-cook and instructed them to swap their sous chefs. You’d think this would be an ideal opportunity for both teams to sabotage the hell out of each other, but both Rollo (above, left) and Harrison’s sous, Jamie Coper, were true sportsmen, taking on tasks for the enemy with no complaints or ill words. Sheehan, meanwhile, earned a couple strange looks thanks to his distribution of “Spam shots “— bite-size hunks of the never-goes-bad sodium-bomb meat product dropped into Brooklyn Lager — to unsuspecting diners. There has to be some sort of Puritan blue law on the books in the Commonwealth strictly forbidding this.

Both chefs decided to underplay the Spam in their entrées (aw c’mon guys!), allowing their chief proteins to shine. Garbacz, with Coper’s help, plated a pretty grilled pork loin (above) with a mac ‘n’ cheese tuile (!) and a near-imperceptible brunoise of Spam in a corn/tomato salad. Harrison, with Rollo’s backing, produced a plate of 28-day dry-aged Lancaster beef, complete with fried squash blossom and Spam/tomato chutney. Then it was time for dessert to pop off, but not before a quick swing-thru from Garbacz’s boss, who wanted to make sure his dudes were doing him proud.

With their sous chefs switched back, Harrison and Garbacz focused on sweets to end the evening. The Sbraga sous served a banana bread French toast (above) turned elaborate with yuzu maple syrup, cardamom marshmallow and bruléed citrus. The Smoke Truck soldier, meanwhile, went a more liquefied route with his finale, with jalapeno-strawberry-tequila shooters and a creative “cappuccino” consisting of Federal Donuts coffee and cocoa powder set into a gelee with agar-agar. In the end, Battle Can-Can went to Garbacz on the scorecard, but I’ll bet both chefs counted cooking on the fly with condensed milk and Spam as a little victory.

Open Stove tends to feature more bro-hugs per capita than all other COOK programming (see above), but the sixth installment, coming up on Wednesday, September 6 (BUY TIX NOW!), will feature actual, real-life bros: a.kitchen sous chef Waldemar Stryjewski will face off against his younger sibling, Stephan Stryjewski of Square 1682. We’re not anticipating a lot of hugging.

Photos: Yoni Nimrod

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