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Chef Battle Las Vegas turns up the heat on local cooks

As a half dozen chefs chopped and diced, curious onlookers peppered them with questions and generally got all up in their grills.

So to speak.

The inaugural Chef Battle Las Vegas, held Wednesday at Hofbrauhaus, was a mix of instruction, performance art and tasting menus as local cooks vied to advance to the next round of the national competition.

“This is something awesome to bring into Vegas, to kind of show attention to maybe some of these guys that aren’t getting a lot of attention on the Strip or a lot of attention outside of their restaurants or their catering companies,” said Shaun O’Neale, the Las Vegas-based winner of “MasterChef” Season 7, who served as one of the judges. “It’s a Vegas show packed into the food world.”

During the 60 minutes allotted for contestants to prepare their dishes for the judges and the couple of hundred attendees to sample, Oscar Sanchez, owner of Oscar Catering, took time to hold up a raw steak to pose for photos and answer anyone curious enough to question him. “It’s instructive,” Sanchez said of the interaction. “I like people to come to me and ask.”

It’s a good thing, as the crowd — families with small children, well-dressed couples and many who looked like they wandered over from the dispensary across the street — gradually escalated from watching from afar to crowding uncomfortably close to the unprepared foods to gain better views.

Sanchez and his fellow competitors — Peter Rochford, chef de partie at Trump International Hotel Las Vegas; Will Staten, founder of Ragin’ Cajun Cookin’; Amanda Woodward, banquet sous chef at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas; and independent chef Amirah Brown — brought sous chefs to rely on during the event.

Private chef Jon VanHusen, though, couldn’t find one he trusted and chose to go it alone. “I figured I could just put my head down and get it done myself,” explained VanHusen, formerly of Andre’s Bistro. He eventually accepted help from a high school culinary student who he said landed a job before the competition was over.

Contestants had two chances to rush among the audience to a table stocked with ingredients, angling, jostling and desperately reaching over each other as though it were the culinary equivalent of a Black Friday sale. A menu of Hofbrauhaus beers was available to incorporate into their dishes.

After explaining their choices to the judges — although not in a way anyone in attendance would notice or even hear over the sounds of Billy Joel and Katrina and the Waves songs blaring throughout the Biergarten — Sanchez was declared the judges’ pick for his striped bass with an avocado parsley sauce and quinoa. It was his first cooking competition, he said, since 2001.

VanHusen was the judges’ second pick and won the audience voting with his rendered pork belly and lager-braised fall vegetables. “I was super pleased,” he said, holding the remnants of a very large beer. “I was super, super pleased.”

Both will move on to the West Coast regionals Nov. 3 in Anaheim, California. In addition to Las Vegas, qualifying rounds are taking place in culinary hot spots including Manhattan and New Orleans, as well as outposts such as Racine, Wisconsin, and Pittsburg, Texas.

“Some great flavors came in here tonight,” O’Neale said, while noting that the competitors were out of their usual element. “Just to be able to spotlight these guys is amazing.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence @reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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