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I had the pleasure recently of being invited to an underground culinary event created by Aaron Preston and Nick Stocker.

This particular gathering was held at Ford Farms in DeLand. In this rustic atmosphere, amateur and professional chefs battled with creative dishes for the approval of a crowd of hungry DeLandites.

This was the eighth Experimental Chef Night event put on by Preston.  

“It started as a bunch of friends, foodies and chefs coming over to my house experimenting with different flavors and foods, so we decided to make it an event to get real feedback,” Preston said.

At the first event at Preston’s house after the gathering was made public, Preston said, he was amazed by the turnout of friends and strangers — all food-loving patrons anxious to try it out.

Since then, with the help of friends and others, Preston has continued to organize the events.

The most recent one occurred outside, with chefs cooking over an open flame, hence the name “primitive edition.”

Off State Road 472 in DeLand was a sign near the entrance of Ford Farms. It featured a science-themed logo, with meatball atoms and a beaker with a straw, letting you know you had arrived at the underground dining event.

I drove past the pasture to a giant fire pit near the farmhouse, where chefs were building their places to cook their competition dishes. Preston was literally in the fire with a shovel, building it to his liking.

The chef competitors this year were Steven Lawrence and Ryan Paiva and Mike Tuma and Kaitlyn Christianson, along with Jeff Curtis, Maggie Riley and Sam Granata.

Upon arriving, those attending were directed to Nick Stocker, who collected $20 per person to reimburse the chefs, who supplied their own food, and to fund prizes in three categories.

Each patron was handed a score card for ranking the winners in plating, experimentation and taste — after trying all the dishes.

John MacDonald of The Half Wall Beer House made a couple of experimental cocktails patrons could try while waiting for the food, and Persimmon Hollow Brewing Co. offered its delicious brew.  

MacDonald called his first concoction a Veryberry Guava Crush, consisting of strawberry, blackberry, guava sour and vodka. It was nicely balanced, refreshing and easy to drink.

The next was the Starship Daiquiri, with star fruit and a mango-lime sour mix with rum, a libation that appealed to the Hemingway in me.

The chefs got their open flames going and, in a semi-orderly fashion, they started plating the food. First up was Granata with a ginger stir-fry with Buffalo chicken. The textures and colors were great, but the bites I had were light on Buffalo and ginger.

Next, Paiva and Lawrence served a mocha chili with a cinnamon-honey cornbread waffle, topped with espresso sour cream and capsaicin-infused caramel. This dish was exciting, flavorful, sweet, spicy and delicious, but the plating was tough. It’s not easy to make a bowl of chili and waffle look beautiful.

Tuma and Christiansen made Bone Marrow Burgers. This is what I had been looking forward to all night: mini ground-beef sliders on a bagel chip with grilled bone marrow.  

Using my spoon, I popped the bone marrow onto the slider and took it down in one bite. It was rich, exciting, creative and so decadent.

Then I tried Curtis’ dish. Curtis, owner of The Twisted Chopstick and Buddha Bowls in DeLand, crafted an Ethiopian injera with doro wat. In common terms, that’s a chicken stew with curry and a flatbread recipe from Ethiopia. This was among my favorites of the evening, but might not suit those who don’t venture far out of the usual food realm.

Last up was Riley, who cooked a whole chicken with a Foster’s beer can inside, while rubbing it down with a house-made rub of brown sugar and barbecue sauce. This was flavorful, and we were impressed by her ability to cook a whole chicken over an open flame while keeping it juicy, with nice texture.

The side dish, not part of the competition, was a whole 4-foot alligator grilled by Stephanie Sousa, because Preston had given her the reptile as a Christmas present. This was a nice surprise to end the meal.  

After everyone had tried all the dishes, it was time to break out the judgment cards.

There was an unlikely three-way tie for best plating among Lawrence and Paiva, Tuma and Christiansen, and Granata. The experimental category was won by Lawrence and Paiva, and the top taste prize went to Tuma and Christiansen.

My personal score card had Tuma and his Bone Marrow Burgers winning plating and taste, while Curtis got the experimental prize for his Ethiopian dish.

Experimental Chef Night is a bimonthly event; the next one is coming up in March at The Twisted Chopstick in DeLand.

This was a great event; thanks to Courtney Ford Hamil and Russell Hamil for hosting it at Ford Farms.


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