The knives were sharp, the pans were hot and the chefs were ready for battle. With a quick handshake between competitors, the clock was ticking.
It was Iron Chef meets March Madness as VCU head basketball coach Shaka Smart competed in a heated culinary battle against rival University of Richmond basketball coach Chris Mooney. More than 200 people cheered on their favorite coach on Thursday night at Benedictine High School. The event raised money for the Positive Vibe Café and Foundation, a group that helps train people with disabilities in a working environment.
The competition was divided into two halves. When the first 30-minute timer began, the two teams scrambled to make the best tasting and best looking appetizer to please the panel of five judges. Both flavor and presentation were considered in the final judging. After the half, the competitors assembled their entrees.
At halftime, Garth Larcen, the founder of the Positive Vibe Café, spoke to the crowd of over 200 attending guests.
Ten years ago, Larcen’s son Max couldn’t find a job but was eager to work. Max uses a wheelchair and has muscular dystrophy, but his dad wouldn’t take no for an answer; he was determined to help his son find a job.
Larcen started the foundation to employ people with disabilities and help them enjoy the satisfaction of being gainfully employed and fully-contributing members of their community.
Larcen originally figured he’d be able to train between five and 10 people per year, but the trainees just kept coming. He said they’ve trained more than 700 people since opening the café in January of 2005.
About a year ago, Larcen jokingly brought up the idea of hosting a fundraiser to raise money and invite the two coaches to have a cook-off. The joke became reality on Thursday night.
“It wasn’t easy. They both have intense schedules. They both do so much work with nonprofits in the community,” Larcen said.
Throughout the evening, both coaches spoke out on behalf of the organization’s work.
“Positive Vibe is an organization that is very helpful to people in our community and puts people to work,” Smart said. “They asked me to be a part of the night; it was an easy decision.”
Smart admitted that he rarely cooks at home, thanks to his busy schedule. “If I didn’t have a professional working with me, better stick to the basics,” Smart said.
Top Richmond chefs assisted each coach. Chef Smart, or “Chef Havoc,” as he was referred to throughout the evening, was assisted by Walter Bundy, the executive chef of Lemaire at the Jefferson Hotel. Chef Mooney teamed up with Glenn Pruden, executive chef at the University of Richmond.
The first half saw tight and spirited play from both sides.
Chef Smart started out with “Shaka’s Southern Pimento Cheese Havoc.” Red peppers lined the cheese gave the dish the look of a basketball. Chef Mooney prepared sautéed calamari in the shape of a spider.
The five judges, representatives from major sponsors of the evening, seemed to enjoy both dishes, but this was only half of the battle.
Two voices from the local sports world commented on every play as the coaches-turned-chefs crafted their dishes. Chef Smart’s team was covered by Greg Burton, the host of ESPN Radio 950’s sports talk show, and Chef Mooney’s team by Bob Black, the voice of the University of Richmond Spiders.
“I think Greg and I have about 50 years of broadcasting experience between us. … This is our first play-by-play of a cook-off,” Black said.
The animated announcers’ play-by-play described every chop and sauté.
“Chef Smart is grating cheese with the intensity of a full court press, taking his time, methodical. It is not a sprint, good food takes a while to prepare,” Burton said.
VCU alumna Deborah Usry enjoyed getting into the spirit of the friendly competition, sitting with her husband, a University of Richmond alumnus.
“As a VCU fan it pains me to say this but it looks like Chris Mooney is a little more comfortable in the kitchen,” Usry said.
Bonnie Ransone, a VCU alumna, and her daughter Garnette supported Smart in full VCU regalia. Ransone was confident that Shaka would win. Despite his unfamiliarity in the kitchen, Ransone said, “That’s OK. He’s got good help.”
As the buzzer rang for the start of the second half, the chefs were confident and ready to bring home a win.
The chefs vigorously prepared their entrées. Smart made blackened tuna with jumbo lump blue crab, morel mushrooms, and “Ram’s Horns,” or spring asparagus with a black truffle vinaigrette.
Meanwhile, on the challenger’s side, Mooney prepared blackened blue duck breast, savory sweet potato pancakes, and green beans with a cranberry coulis.
Smart’s wife Maya said she had never seen her husband cook such an intricate meal.
“I think he would definitely be interested in cooking if he had more spare time. … Now that he’s had this tutorial with the really good chefs, maybe he’ll pick it up,” she said.
At the end of the evening, the scores were tallied and the judges made their final decision. Larcen announced the winner to the crowd. In what couldn’t have been a closer match, Mooney’s meal won by a single point.