Winning the Papi Tino’s New Chef Challenge

Two months ago I was told about a new chef competition being organized in Austin. The location would be Papi Tino’s, a relatively new Mexican restaurant that focuses on authentic flavors of the interior of Mexico – no cheesy refried beans or chicken nachos served. Competitors would have to bone up on their Mexican cooking chops to come out on top.

The competition was being organized around the three cooking schools in Austin: the national behemoth with French pedigree, Le Cordon Bleu, the Escoffier School, and my school, a tiny vegetarian upstart, The Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts.

In round one, I competed against one of my classmates, Chip Singer, who is a reknowned cook of Latin cuisine and self-described “chile head.” He knows his spices and ingredients from south of the border. We both cooked great dishes based on concepts we had developed independently and I was lucky to escape with a win that week. Since we were representing The Natural Epicurean, we both cooked vegetarian dishes and I think it made a great impression on the guests at the restaurant.

Below: The scene at Papi Tino’s

Below: My Round 1 dish – zucchini with pipian sauce and lentils.

Rounds two and three were set up similarly, with students from the other two schools competing against each other using recipes they developed in advance.

The final round featured one student from each of the three schools. We each drew numbers and were given a mystery box containing surprise ingredients. The additional twist, in my case, was the requirement to cook with meat or fish. Going 100% plant-based, which would be true to my culinary training, was not going to be an option. Luckily, I am comfortable cooking animal protein, but it hasn’t been as much of a feature of my cooking background as the average cook. So, I was already at a bit of a disadvantage coming out of the gate.

Below: Sadly, this is the best photo I have of my dish from the finals. A ground pork picadillo taco with sweet potato puree.

Chip was gracious enough to join me as a prep assistant and he and I collaborated on the dish concept and presentation. I was very fortunate to have him in my corner as he’s an excellent cook with a ton of knowledge. We developed a picadillo concept with the ground pork that would use cinnamon and other spices, eggplant, chiles, and figs. On the side, I made a roasted sweet potato puree with thyme, oregano, lime and peanut. And Chip created a cilantro lime sauce and pickled onion condiments. We created a great-looking presentation for the plate.

Our competitors from Escoffier and Le Cordon Bleu made baked tilapia and roasted rib eye, respectively. I tasted each and they were quite good. The beef dish was especially elaborate, featuring hibiscus flowers and guacamole with chocolate. I was expecting to be congratulating one of my colleagues on their well-deserved win when we were all brought out for the final winner announcement.

When my name was read as the victor, I was truly surprised. I knew our dish was good, but winning was a terrific and unexpected honor. I accepted the congratulations of the “celebrity” judge panel consisting of local food notables and posed for a few photos.

Below: After the win.

The entire process was a great learning experience. Recipe development, the ingredients of true interior Mexican food, working in a small kitchen, prepping for a large crowd, and the collaborative process were all areas I got to explore and develop. I’m very grateful to my school, The Natural Epicurean, and Leanne Valenti ( for choosing me to represent the school. Thanks to Chef Lalo of Papi Tino’s for his guidance and to Vess Consulting for organizing the event.

(Article written by one judge from the finals: