Eli's tempura cod with cilantro and dill sauce

I admit it. I’m a Top Chef fanatic. Haven’t missed an episode of Top Chef, Top Chef All Stars, Top Chef Masters, or even Top Chef Just Desserts. Some I’ve seen multiple times, so when I discovered that Bravo’s Top Chef Tour was going to be downtown Orlando, I pushed my husband Russ to break from his Sunday morning read-the-Orlando Sentinel-slowly routine and head downtown. Altering his morning of leisure meant we arrived at the host venue, The Farmer’s Market, shortly before the 2nd competition of the day between Chefs Eli Kirshtein and Kenny “Beast of the Kitchen” Gilbert.

While Russ parked and bid me luck for getting into the enclosed tented area set up with two make-shift kitchens, I gamely ventured through the packed crowds frying under a blazing mid-90s sun. My excitement mounted as entrance attendants stood ready, and then my heart squished like a watermelon thrown from a rooftop onto the sidewalk when they asked for those with online reservations. What reservations? I didn’t know anything about those. It wasn’t in the stories I’d read about the tour event.

My innate intuition must have been on overdrive because I turned to three friendly-looking people standing nearby and asked if they knew “what reservations.” Turns out two of the three are food bloggers and photographers and had been invited by Foodspotting.com to cover the event. Julius Mayo Jr owns Droolius and Pearleen Buchala rules at Mega Yummo!.  Turned out to be a Divine Introduction.

Kenny's tropical cod with mango quinoa

I lamented I’d not thought to inquire about press credentials, as I do cover food, wine, spas and events for hospitality, meetings & events and entertainment publications. I handed Julius my business card as Contributing Editor for Prevue Magazine and he said a fourth member of their group couldn’t come last minute and offered me her place. My shoes may have been on the ground, but my heart was flying higher than the orange-lettered Bravo Top Chef Tent.

We settled into front row seats, between the two chef’s kitchens. Inbetween them was a white-clothed table set for three. Seated there already was guest judge, Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, who initiated the Farmer’s Market and the Orlando Community Garden. Fred Haug, the host, announced two other judges would be picked by answering trivia questions.

Are you feeling the power that was in me that afternoon? The first question was who won Season 4? My hand shot up in the air and I answered correctly, Stephanie (Izard). That wasn’t me climbing onto the stage. That was me beaming up without use of a transporter! The third judge was Mike from Melbourne.

Fred kibitzed with Eli and Kenny while explaining to the audience that each Chef had 10 ingredients. Cod was the local special ingredient. They had 20 minutes to cook and plate. We would be served both dishes, as would everyone seated within the enclosure, but only we three would decide the heat’s winner. Kenny had won the first round.

While the clock swiftly ticked down, Fred directed audience questions to the Chefs. I kept turning from one to another, amazed they could track what they were cooking while responding to questions and fighting the sweat threatening to drip from their brows. Eli presented a tempura cod beside a dill and cilantro white sauce. He said his secret ingredient would be capers, but not sure if that was used.

Kenny popped my senses with his Caribbean-styled coffee-rubbed cod, an almond coriander puree and a much-too-small serving of a quinoa salad laced with mango that I would have been happy to have eaten for the entire meal.

We wanted to lick our plates, but thought that might be a tad excessive, so we settled for a serious discussion of who won. You’d think someone was being asked to “pack their knives” if they lost. I voted for Kenny, because I loved his spicy meld of ingredients. The other two favored Eli because of the sheer simplicity of his dishes. I may have lost the decision to award the round to Kenny, but I won by being part of this amazing event.

BTW: Kenny just opened Nippers Beach Grille in Jacksonville. I know where I’ll be eating when in Jacksonville.

Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in theOrlandoarea who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries.  She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI, for which she is on the Membership Advisory Council and the Industry Advisory Council. She writes about food & wine, spas, venues, meetings & events (figured that one out, did ya?) A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events.