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TOLEDO MAGAZINE

Talented chefs face off at Top Knife Competition

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    Gratzi chef Dan Gawura helps prepare the Lobster Mac and Cheese dish by Real Seafood Co. (Bay City, Mich.) chef Aaron Musinski during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    Gratzi chef Dan Gawura, center, helps prepare another chef's meal during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo. Gawura was the winner.

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    Kale and Cream Cheese Stuffed Pork Chop dish by Zia's chef Brittney Hagan, 2nd from right, gets help with her dish from other chefs, including Adam Cane, right, during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    Kelly Carver and Michael Huss add up their scores during the Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    Competing chefs prepare the Moroccan Braised Lamb dish by Carson's chef Bob Bolling during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    Kelly Carver adds up her score during the Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    From left: Beth Blankerts, Dorema Rouse and Cathy Colvin judges a dish during the Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    The Pan Seared Filet dish by Stillwater Grill chef Dakota Hughes during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo, Ohio.

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    Judges Don and Patty McGraw, left, and Bob and Kim Turco, right, taste the Moroccan Braised Lamb dish by Carson's chef Bob Bolling during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo. THE BLADE/LORI KING

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    Eggs are poached for the Seared Scallops dish by Palio chef Adam Cane during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    Meringue Cake dessert by Palio's Taylor Hoener during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    Gratzi chef Dan Gawura, right, wins the Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    Judges taste the Moroccan Braised Lamb dish by Carson's chef Bob Bolling during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    Filets are seared for the Pan Seared Filet dish by Stillwater Grill chef Dakota Hughes during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    Seared Chilean Seabass by Gratzi chef and 2018 Top Knife winner Dan Gawura is judged during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    Gratzi chef Dan Gawura wins the Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    Kale and Cream Cheese Stuffed Pork Chop dish by Zia's chef Brittney Hagan during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    Moroccan Braised Lamb dish by Carson's chef Bob Bolling during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    Palio's Taylor Hoener, left, prepares her Meringue Cake dessert during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo. Helping is Carson's chef Bob Bolling.

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    Potatoes ready for the Moroccan Braised Lamb dish by Carson's chef Bob Bolling during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    The Seared Scallops dish by Palio chef Adam Cane during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    Carson's chef Bob Bolling takes a quick break before he serves his Moroccan Braised Lamb dish during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    Lobster Mac and Cheese dish by Real Seafood Co. (Bay City, Mich.) chef Aaron Musinski during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    The Seared Scallops dish by Palio chef Adam Cane during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    Ingredients for the Seared Sea Scallops by Stillwater Gril chef Tim Nuckels during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    Gratzi chef Nick Watts, right, prepares his Toasted Pistachio and Ricotta Gnocchi dish during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    The Seared Sea Scallops dish by Stillwater Grill chef Tim Nuckels during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    Toasted Pistachio and Ricotta Gnocchi by Gratzi chef Nick Watts during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    Temperance, Mich. residents CeCe Eloff, left, and Joyce Kubiak judge the Lobster Mac and Cheese dish by Real Seafood Co. (Bay City, Mich.) chef Aaron Musinski during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    The Seared Sea Scallops dish entered by Stillwater Grill chef Tim Nuckels is prepared during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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    Matthew Kubiak judges the Lobster Mac and Cheese dish by Real Seafood Co. (Bay City, Mich.) chef Aaron Musinski during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo. THE BLADE/LORI KING

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    Seared Chilean Seabass prepared by Gratzi chef and 2018 Top Knife winner Dan Gawura during Mainstreet Ventures' Top Knife competition at Zia's Italian Restaurant in Toledo.

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Top Knife is “the dinner of the year,” said the Mainstreet Ventures President and CEO Mike Gibbons in his introduction to the event. Eight of the restaurant group’s establishments had hosted internal cook-offs, and those winners competed on Jan. 15.

Father Joe Newman, vice president at St. Francis de Sales School, called the competition one of his favorite events because it’s “in support of charity.” Nearly 80 attendees paid $100 each to serve as judges; 20 percent of the proceeds will benefit Tutor Smart, a Toledo Public Schools after-hours program.

Tim Nuckels, chef at the Stillwater Grill in Brighton, Mich., led off with seared scallops served over creamy risotto. Bonnie Hunter noted the lovely tenderness of the seafood. 

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WATCH: Chefs go head-to-head in Top Knife competition

Aaron Musinski, chef at Bay City, Mich.’s, Real Seafood Company, served his Lobster Mac and Cheese in the shell, eliciting gasps. “I thought this presentation was just fantastic,” said Father Ronald Olszewski, also of St. Francis de Sales.

Sous chef Nick Watts of Ann Arbor’s Gratzi offered rustic ricotta gnocchi with roasted carrots and a maple-bourbon-cherry gastrique, which was Nancy Flynn’s favorite dish. 

Bob Bolling, a bartender and dining room supervisor at Carson’s American Bistro, also in Ann Arbor, prepared a fragrant Moroccan-spiced lamb with roasted root vegetables. “That was really something,” said Jim Slattery. 

And Dakota Hughes, a line cook at the Stillwater Grill in Okemos, Mich., served the final competitive dish: a pan-seared filet basted in garlic butter, with rosemary mashed potatoes and ratatouille. It appeared to be simple, but offered complex flavors.

Dessert was prepared by Taylor Hoener, a bartender and dining room supervisor at Palio in Grand Rapids, who served a meringue and buttercream tower garnished with golden, gleaming spun sugar.

And then, the winners were announced.

Third place, with a prize of $750, went to Brittney Hagan, a server and bartender at Zia’s, for her kale and cream cheese-stuffed pork chop topped with apple carrot slaw. Many judges described it as “gorgeous.”

Adam Cane, the dining room manager at Palio in Ann Arbor, earned the $1,000 second prize for scallops served with freshly prepared spaghetti. The egg perched on top had been poached perfectly, with the runny yolk enriching the sauce. Pat Flynn said, “They hit a home run.”

And the Top Knife winner — who earned $1,500, a chef’s knife, and the opportunity to have his dish placed on Mainstreet Ventures’ menus — was Dan Gawura, the executive chef at Ann Arbor’s Gratzi.

“Everyone’s dishes looked so amazing,” he said, shocked that he’d won. He hadn’t originally planned to compete, but his staff encouraged him; they even helped to pick the ingredients for his meltingly tender Chilean sea bass atop a crispy fried risotto cake and complemented by a roasted tomato broth.

The quality “gets better every year,” said Brent Courson, MSV executive chef. “The event, for us, is a focus on people who are truly passionate about food.”

Contact Mary Bilyeu at 419-724-6155 or mbilyeu@theblade.com, and follow her at facebook.com/thebladefoodpage.

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