Open Stove just keeps getting stranger. So far I’ve attended a total of three of COOK’s monthly chef-on-chef extravaganzas; July’s pitted Germany against France, while August’s pitted Spam against Spam. For September, things got very personal —brother vs. brother personal. Waldermar “Val” Stryjewski (left), sous chef at a.kitchen, did battle with his younger sibling of 10 years, Stephan “Steve” Stryjewski (right), sous chef at the Hotel Palomar’s Square 1682. I first got to know these two back in 2010, when we all accompanied COOK regular Peter Woolsey on a trip up to NYC’s James Beard House. Besides possessing a shared gift for indefatigable smack-talk, the Stryjewskis are both sure-handed as hell in the kitchen. But if Open Stove, built around a series of “secret ingredients” selected by the COOK staff, is good for anything, it’s ensuring any modicum of culinary comfort disappears faster than a dozen Federal Donuts at an over-attended brunch potluck.
I had the pleasure of sitting with Lucy, the clearly-very-nervous mother of Val and Steve (she didn’t vote, of course), for the evening. This gave me the opportunity to absorb all sorts of awesome/embarrassing tidbits about her sons, with whom she barely gets to hang out these days due to their (and her) grueling work schedules. (“I have to come here to see them!” she lamented.) I learned that Val, whose family calls him “Walt,” was known as “Garbage Gut” as a child due to his propensity to destroy any parcel of food placed in front of him — a born chef indeed. I also learned that Steve, who wanted to be a surgeon as a kid, got into cooking when Walt Val found himself in desperate need of a dishwasher at an old job. He brought lil’ bro in to man the station and Steve immediately caught the bug.
Between them, the Stryjewskis have worked at an impressive number of top-tier Philly restaurants — Brasserie Perrier, Striped Bass, Pumpkin, Bistrot La Minette, Le Bec Fin, Buddakan, Lacroix, you name it. This experience really showed in their amuse bouche course, which, along with dessert, they were allowed to pre-prepare for the enthusiastic crowd. Steve presented a chipotle-roasted oyster with peach/arugula salad and a crispy chorizo sliver (top), while his older sib went a little more elaborate, setting the flavors of the traditional French seafood stew bouillabaise in a gelee and nooking it into a crisp mini-tart along with savory saffron ice cream.
Steve is apparently the more sartorially minded individual of the two brothers, as he and his sous/ladyfriend Sam worked two costume changes into the competition, the first of which featured this absolutely ridiculous “COME AT ME BRO” tee he purchased at (where else?) Franklin Mills. (Val kept his coat-and-apron look intact throughout the night.) Steve definitely brought it on the showmanship tip, but it didn’t help matters much once he was presented with the secret ingredient for the appetizer course …
… paw-paws! For those who don’t know (don’t worry, neither chef and essentially the entire audience had ever tried them), a paw-paw is a tree fruit native to America, its unmistakable flesh tasting like a bizarre amalgam of banana and mango. COOK bought out the Fair Food Farmstand of its entire paw-paw stock on this day, but they should have some in the coming week or two, as we’re right in the middle of the fruit’s very small seasonal window. Sam, who used to work at paw-paw-producing Green Meadow Farm in Lancaster County, knew what to do, shaving off the fruit’s papaya-esque skin (top) and creating a sweet sauce to go along with Steve’s spicy Spanish-style rice and grilled mackerel starter. There was a drizzle of salty jet-black squid ink on the plate, too, which the chef promptly applied to his face like a football player, sans Tebow-style scripture verses. Val, meanwhile, went duck-duck-duck with his app, searing marinated quacker hearts (above) and plating them with confit leg meat and a rich foie gras torchon. He blended the secret ingredient to make mofongo, subbing in the paw-paw puree for the mashed plantains that characterize the traditional Puerto Rican dish. (Lucy es una boricua so this was a nice familial shout.)
Sitting with Lucy for the competition also provided me with plenty of insight into the differences in the Stryjewskis’ styles. Ever since she could remember, momdukes told me, Val’s been the consummate “comfort cook,” focusing on big, hearty rib-sticking flavors. Boisterous, squid-smeared Steve, if you can believe it, is more of a finesse man, particularly visible in his strength with pastry (he’s a Miel Patisserie alum), an area Val readily admits he has little interest in. I was ready to see if I could gauge the differing approaches of the brothers in the entrée course, but that was before they unveiled the second secret ingredient of Open Stove VI …
… Lucky Charms. The crowd FREEEEEEAKED. Everyone loves the magically delicious nostalgia-in-a-box breakfast staple, right? Almost everyone — while Steve is a sugary cereal fanatic (he’s got multiple dispensers set up in his house), Lucy informed me that Val straight-up hates the stuff. Lucky him! We were all geeked to see what the hell we’d be eating. It looked as if Steve was going with duck and Val was working with black bass, but then shit got all sorts of flummoxing the second Open Stove capo/Philly Mag food editor Jason Sheehan stepped in with a second twist.
With just about 15 minutes of cook time remaining, he instructed the bros to switch sides and complete each others’ dishes. The crowd would vote for the chef who finished the entree as opposed to the chef who started it. It’s difficult to aptly describe the look on the faces of the Stryjewskis and their respective sous chefs (Val’s guy, “Jersey” Sean O’Ryan, was a true sport) once they were hit with this news, but it looked a little something like this. The results: Steve presented bass with Lucky Charms-studded caramelized onions and a Lucky Charms “dumpling” that was originally intended to be gnocchi (above, right), while his brother did crisp-skinned duck breast over Lucky Charms-flavored choucroute (!), likely infuriating the Alsatian food gods and earmarking him for eventual demise via flammekueche-scented lightning bolt sometime in the near future.
With the Lucky Charms insanity behind them, the Stryjewskis regrouped and served doubled-up dessert courses — Val offered a fig tart with goat cheese ice cream and an absolutely beautiful cheese plate (above, left), while Steve tapped into his dessert expertise to create a unfair-good sherry-vanilla financier with cherry sorbet, plus eloquent little chocolates (one filled with foie!). At some point he also managed to slip into a suit, much to delight of his mother, who made sure to inform me that Val also cleans up very nicely. Aw, love you Stryjewskis. When it came time to tally the votes (Lucy literally braced herself for the result announcement), Steve ended up taking the Open Stove VI crown in a competitive finish. No one likes to lose — especially to your friggin’ younger brother — but Val took the L with grace, sharing a tender embrace with Steve that was TCFWP (Too Cute for Web Publication). This was easily the most intense Open Stove I’ve been to yet, but it was also kind of the sweetest.
Photos: Yoni Nimrod and Dan Van WertBack to Blog