The heat was on in more ways than one at the first of five celebrity chef challenges at Wine Scene on June 24. In a friendly competition where everyone wins – and eats and drinks – the art garden of Wine Scene on Fern Street downtown was the site of the event. They call it a Graffiti Garden but make no mistake these large planned out murals are art, not graffiti, and make for a beautiful, colorful, photogenic backdrop. Owner Tony Solo was a gracious host, darting around shaking hands, taking photos and greeting everyone.

There were several tents set up for the chefs and judges, some cushioned seating, a DJ to keep the beat, cooling fans to help with the upper 80s temperature, and some crisp, cold drinks and wines to sample. There were 4 kinds of wines, 2 whites and 2 reds, that were suggested to taste in order of light to heavy depending on your palate. The Pinot Grigio was delicious, as was the strawberry water provided to sip on in between wines and plates of foods.

A large buffet table awaited with cheeses and fruits and shrimps courtesy of sponsor Whole Foods. It was so hot the big wheel of brie soon started melting and sliding down the table before it was scooped up by plates, whew.

There was a separate table laden with ingredients the chefs would choose from to create the dish that they would be judged on. The table had oils, veggies, fruits, spices, grains and more good stuff.

The judges were Alyson Seligman of Average Girls Guide PR, David Pantone of Lincoln Culinary Institute, and the ever perky Leslie Gray Streeter, Pop Culture columnist for the Palm Beach Post, who filled in for West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio.

Onto the chef tents! Each chef prepared a dish for the public to sample, then later in the evening a top secret surprise seafood ingredient was brought out that each chef used to create a plate for the judges only.

Dishes prepared at The Feast of the Sea Chefs Challenge

Winning tuna dish by Hullabaloo

The first tent – and eventual winning chef of the event – was Fritz Cassel of Hullabaloo on Clematis. The secret ingredient was tuna, which Cassel used to make a winning combo called Duet of Tuna – Smoked Tuna & Wild Mushrooms with Fire Roasted Vegetables and Golden Quinoa Crusted Tuna with Asparagus & Charred Corn Purée with Fennel Pollen. Now that’s a pretty impressive thing to whip up with about 2 minutes notice, but Cassel had an arsenal of cooking tools with him – he even brought a mini smoker that used wood chips and fed the smoke into a tube that smoked the fish in a covered metal bowl. Gastro genius and the finished plate looked beautiful as well as delicious. His plate for the public was a bit strange though, with a seafood pate loaf that had a whole egg in it, sliced and served on a too crunchy hard baguette with mustard sauce, smoked salmon and pickled onions.

Cassel’s restaurant, Hullabaloo 517 Clematis Street, is a music-themed pub that offers an upscale menu to complement its cool, rock and roll interior. Antipasto dishes include fried green heirloom tomatoes and flame roasted marrow bones, seared sea scallops or roasted pork and porcini risotto.

Table 26 chef Joe Ferro had my favorite appetizer – a fluffy corn tamale served with herbed shrimps, plus they had strawberry lemonade spiked with vodka, a sure fire crowd pleaser combo. His tuna dish consisted of a pan cooked tuna steak with an herbed cream sauce.

The next tent belonged to Chef Roberto Villegas of Table 427, who served up a large tuna roll with avocado and fruits.

Whole Foods Market Chef Robert Mauro was amazing to watch as he barked out orders to his crew and whipped up a Cajun rub seared tuna steak.

All of the chefs were working like mad and it was great fun to watch and cheer along as the crowd took pictures and notes and sampled the wonderful wines. With the rise of TV food shows and the interest in farm to table cooking and local gardens, celebrity chefs have come a long way since the days of Julia Child and her prim, kitchen bound cooking.
My only beef (pun intended) is the lack of female chefs, there isn’t a single one in the next 4 challenges. I’ve been writing profiles of chefs for several years now both in Florida and in New York. The one female chef I did interview in Southampton said the main issue is the demanding hours of the job. It’s something insane like 15 to 20 hours a day in season for top-tier restaurants when you add in all the logistics of sourcing, menu planning, restaurant design, staff training and overseeing, budgeting, management, health regulations and the actual cooking and clean up. For most women, this is an almost impossible job to have if they also have a family, there is no time at the end of the day. For men they can have a wife and kids who will accept the long hours and keep a home running.

That being said, it’s a beautiful event that does highlight the diversity and quality of the chefs we have here. South Florida has been making news for many years for its cuisine, an exotic, abundant mixture of cultures and foods that continues to grow and expand in unusual ways.

The winner of this round one challenge goes on to the next challenge July 22nd at the International Polo Club in Wellington; the 3rd one is August 26th at Saltwater Brewery in Delray; then the 4th takes place at Williams Sonoma at Downtown at the Gardens. Winners will all be at the Seafood Festival on Flagler downtown WPB October 24th for the grand finale.

The passes for the chefs challenge series come with entrance to the event, a commemorative catalog with all the chefs and locations, plus drinks and of course the food.


For more information see and get tickets early as they are limited for the next 3 challenges.

Sandra-Schulman Sandra Schulman is an arts writer, music and film producer. Born in Miami, her work has appeared in Billboard, Variety, Rolling Stone, Ocean Drive, Country Music Magazine, The New York Daily News, News From Indian Country, and Entertainment Weekly. She was an entertainment columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 8 years. She has authored three books on pop culture. She currently lives in West Palm Beach with her blue eyed whippet. Sandra Schulman’s column appears weekly. Contact her at

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