If the Kentucky Derby’s approaching, it must be time for the Skuna Bay salmon chef challenge. The Vancouver Island farm-raised salmon is a familiar name-check on restaurant menus, where chefs value its purity and consistency—and the fish isn’t available retail, so home cooks are out of luck.
I’m happy to judge the salmon challenge again, this time with last year’s finalist Andrew Sutton, executive chef of the two fine-dining Disney restaurants in Orange County, Napa Rose and Carthay Circle. (Carthay Circle, inside California Adventure, is one of Orange Coast’s 10 Best Restaurants in our April issue.) Sutton won at this local level and then the western division before competing in the Louisville finals, where his very fine dish lost by the slimmest of margins. Jennifer Minichiello, chef-instructor at the Art Institute of California-Orange County in Santa Ana, in whose capacious teaching kitchen the competition was held, joined Sutton and me as the third judge.
Three chefs competed in the timed event, which starts with a whole salmon and concludes with the finished dish. Oliver Wolf, executive chef at the Marriott resort in Desert Springs, and Jason Rivas, recently of South Coast Winery, made strong showings, but we were unanimous in our decision: chef Eric Samaniego of downtown Santa Ana’s Little Sparrow won for his meticulous handling of the fish during prep, and his clean, simple dish. April’s been a good month for Little Sparrow, which happens to be Orange Coast’s restaurant of the year. It’s all down to Samaniego’s cooking—for the competition Samaniego served a square of exceptionally crisp-skinned, rare-center salmon garnished with a touch of yuzu kosho, the salty, intensely flavored condiment made from the Japanese citrus, atop a twist of soba noodles, and at the table poured an umami-rich pork-stock dashi around the noodles and fish.
Sadly, Samaniego was eliminated at the Western regionals. But there’s always next year, and of course there’s that award-winning Little Sparrow.