Crystal Coppock of Wheat Penny Oven and Bar, Maria Walusis of Nibbles and Aaron Braun of Meadowlark Restaurant on stage at the finals for the second annual Chef Showdown. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY ALEXIS LARSEN

Nibbles chef takes home top prize in chef showdown

A restaurant kitchen in the middle of peak hours on a Friday or Saturday night gives new meaning to the term “pressure cooking.”

Last weekend’s second annual Chef Showdown at the Dayton Home and Garden Show offered the impressive creativity, quick thinking and intense cooking that you would usually only observe during the busiest times in the kitchen.

The flurry of activity during the final round on Sunday had three seasoned local chefs creating dishes on the fly centered around five challenging mystery ingredients unveiled at the start of the timer.

Chef Aaron Braun of Meadowlark Restaurant, Chef Crystal Coppock of Wheat Penny Oven and Bar and Chef Maria Walusis of Nibbles advanced in their respective rounds on Saturday to join the finals on Sunday.

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Digging into strange new ingredients

The five mystery ingredients were:

Arctic Char, a wonderfully flavorful and firm fish that has a flavor when cooked that falls between trout and salmon.

Chia Pod, a food product that offers a healthy alternative to on-the-go snacks, blending a serving of sun-ripened chia seeds mixed with fruit and coconut milk. Dairy- and gluten-free, this product tastes like a lighter tapioca.

Fresh dandelion greens, a bitter green with a bite that is packed with fiber, vitamins and nutrients and is extremely healthy. These greens are a nice component to a salad, on a sandwich or in a smoothie.

Preserved lemons pickled in a brine of water, lemon juice, and salt. These tangy babies have been fermented for quite some time, bringing out the tart and intensely lemony flavor.

Mochi, a Japanese rice cake that is pounded into a soft paste.

The chefs had their work cut out for them trying to marry a wide variety of flavors together into a dish that they had just 30 minutes to create, on a single burner. Fortunately, all three were up to the task.

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The crowd that was packed into the staging area was able to keep close tabs on what each chef was doing thanks to overhead cameras and TV screens.

“This is the second year for the Chef Showdown,” the event’s producer, Lisa Grigsby, told a standing-room-only crowd. “In this time we have featured 16 different local Miami Valley chefs and helped showcase the immense amount of talent we have in the community.”

I was lucky enough to be able to judge the final round of the contest inspired by the TV show “Chopped,” alongside Chef Dominique Fortin and local foodie Ann Roberts. The beautifully crafted dishes showcased completely different cooking styles and flavor profiles.

Winning with Mediterranean flair

The winning dish from Walusis tasted like it had been carefully crafted to be a high-end dining mainstay of her kitchen — not something conceived on a time limit with a bag of mystery ingredients.

Her pan-seared Arctic Char over beans that had been simmered with bacon, shallots, tomato, garlic and chia seeds was a standout. The Mediterranean-infused dish was a careful balance that elevated the perfectly cooked fish thanks to the creamy, savory beans, the garnish of preserved lemon with balsamic and honey that popped with bright flavor, dandelion greens sauteed in bacon fat and garlic and accented with some crispy pieces of bacon and a dressing of tomato tapenade with accents of kalamata olives, fresh basil, capers and lemon zest. A little of the grated mochi cake, or as Walusis called it, a “sawdust cake,” was sprinkled on top.

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“I was very excited and pleased to win. I knew my dish had a lot of flavor, and some really flavorful components that went well together and I was really happy with my dish. I worked a lot of ingredients and layers into each element. But you never know until the end what the other chefs accomplished on the plate. All the other chefs did such a great job and I loved hearing what the others did with their ingredients. Some really creative ideas,’” said Walusis, who said she had never tasted or worked with three of the five mystery items.

“My cooking tends towards French, Italian and Mediterranean, so these are already flavors and ingredients I work with regularly and create combinations of.”

A big week with a new expansion

It’s been quite a week for Walusis, who had a major announcement recently with the signing of a lease on a new property in Miamisburg that will more than double her restaurent’s current space.

“We are keeping the Nibbles brand for our catering business, but re-branding the new restaurant as Watermark,” she said. “The new space is on the ground floor of a three-story historic building, that was originally a tobacco warehouse during the Canal Era.

“The recent tenants were all offices, so it must be completely built-out in order to accommodate a restaurant operation. This will include the entire kitchen and all its equipment, the bar, everything. We are working on the design and layout and getting all of the contractors lined up.”

The new space, slated to open this summer, will seat 40 in the lounge and 40 in the dining room. There will also be a private-events room that will also seat about 40. It’s a major jump from the 30 people her restaurant can currently now holds.

Staying open till the move

The good news for local foodies is that Nibbles will be staying open at its current location right up until the move to the new space.

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“The buildings are practically next-door to each other, so the move and transition will be as smooth as possible. A new tenant will begin operation immediately after our move, so the dining scene is getting two new restaurants out of this deal,” Walusis said. “We will be expanding our days and hours to offer dinner service Monday through Saturday. We will also be open later since we will have a nice lounge and a full bar menu.”

She says this kind of growth wouldn’t be possible without the support of her hungry fans.

“It is the support of the dining public that makes our success possible. We are so excited to be able to make this move, and for the new opportunities it will create to provide amazing experiences for our guests,” Walusis said.

Dayton Eats looks at the regional food stories and restaurant news that make mouths water. Menu updates, special dinners and events, new chefs, interesting new dishes and culinary adventures. Do you know of new exciting format changes, specials, happy hours, restaurant updates or any other tasty news you think is worth a closer look at? E-mail Alexis Larsen at alexis.e.larsen@hotmail.com with the information and we will work to include it in future coverage.

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