Think of it as Iron Chef San Francisco if you will; four chefs competing in teams of two, a list of secret ingredients, a live audience and $20,000 going to the winner’s charity. That what lies ahead for the participants in the Illy Chef Challenge on Saturday, just one event in the weeklong SF Chefs 2011.

Incanto’s Chris Cosentino will be teaming with Orson and Citizen Cake chef Elizabeth Falkner as they square off against Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn and Russell Jackson of Lafitte. The teams will be challenged to create the best dish possible using secret ingredients on the spot. And as an added bonus, Chase Sapphire will donate $20,000 to the charity of the winning team and $5,000 to the runners-up.

I got a chance to talk with the ever-candid Jackson as he prepared for the competition. He said he considers Crenn a dear friend and they have been working together to perfect their strategy. “Dominique and I are having a love affair in the kitchen. The things she does well, I do poorly and vice versa,” he said. “Chris and I have been exchanging barbs already. But let’s be honest, we’re going to kick ass!”

Jackson, who opened Lafitte a little over a year ago on the Embarcadero, said he has learned so much from friends like Crenn and Falkner. “(This first year) has been a really humbling experience. I went in with the best of intentions,” said Jackson. “I wanted to push the envelope, but also be true to who (we) are. But this (Lafitte) is still an organic cast. We are still growing and learning everyday.”

That included the harsh reality of what food critics and blogs can do, for better or worse. SF Chronicle food and wine editor and restaurant critic Michael Bauer gave Lafitte poor marks in the early going, when Jackson said “we were still moving on the fly.” A recent revisit upped Bauer’s review to two stars, giving Jackson a small sense of victory. But like most chefs, he still strives to get better. “We are working on a new lunch menu. But I know the difficulties of trying to build/maintain a restaurant in San Francisco. The environment calls for chefs to be hyper-sensitive in what they can do,” he said.

Jackson said in preparing for the competition, he and Crenn decided they wanted to choose a charity that means a lot to each of them. So they chose Kids Against Cancer. Cosentino and Falkner have chosen Meals on Wheels.

The Illy Chef Challenge will be held at the Westin St. Francis from 4-5:30pm on Saturday, August 6.

 

 

Photo Credit: Lafitte Facebook Page, SF Chefs, Food Network