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Clash of the Titans: Healy vs. Ardolina

A French-trained chef and a traditional Cuban chef have a knock-down, drag-out cook-off. It's good to the last fufu.

November 14, 1996|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One night, Patrick Healy awoke in a cold sweat from a nightmare, a familiar voice ringing in his ears: You have to have the flavor, Patrick.

Well, of course. He'd only heard the phrase 50 times a day for the last few weeks. As chef for the new Pasadena restaurant named Oye! Healy was developing a new Cuban-inspired cuisine he called Nuevo Americano. And whether he was discussing the new menu, making his first stab at ropa vieja or marinating a pork chop, the restaurant's owner, Xiomara Ardolina, would insist, "You have to have the flavor, Patrick."

She used the phrase constantly, relentlessly, as if its tireless repetition would actually conjure the vivid tastes she'd loved since childhood.

Healy, it should be noted, came to prominence at some of L.A.'s top French restaurants and has often been called one of the best young chefs in the country. He consults at Xiomara/Oye! in Pasadena and the Buffalo Club in Santa Monica. In other words, he is no slouch at producing startlingly delicious, sophisticated food.

Nevertheless, if he presented the Havana-born Ardolina with a dish she deemed at all lacking, impatience strained her voice. "You have to have the flavor, Patrick."

OK, OK. But what flavor, exactly, was she talking about?

The signifying flavor of Cuban cooking: the shifting mix of olive oil, cumin, citrus, flagrant amounts of garlic. And don't forget the ubiquitous, crucial sofrito--fried onion, peppers, garlic and spices--that forms the base of countless Cuban dishes, from black beans to fricase de pollo, its presence as unmistakable and alluring as syncopation in dance music. These are the vivid tastes Ardolina has loved since childhood.

"Patrick and I never had any disagreements over his cooking before we started planning Oye!," Ardolina says. "But this menu was too important to me."

Oye! was to open soon. Did Healy's cooking have the flavor? Not quite. A series of tastings followed. More cumin in the black bean soup. And that ropa vieja tasted suspiciously like boeuf bourguignon.

Back to the drawing board. Soon, however, Ardolina began to relax. She had to admit that Healy's cooking was acquiring the flavor.

As much flavor as Ardolina's beloved Cuban food?

Maybe.

Then again, maybe not.

Of course it did.

Well, almost.

Word about Healy's Cuban-inspired experiments had gotten around. The staff of The Times Test Kitchen asked Healy and Ardolina to stage a Nuevo Americano versus traditional Cuban cook-off. Three courses each. Their choice.

The cook-off was scheduled for a Thursday. The Tuesday before, Ardolina began marinating a 20-pound pork leg in the Xiomara/Oye! kitchen. Wednesday night, when she went to take the pork leg home, she found it covered with shallots.

Shallots! Her lechon asada calls for 16 garlic cloves and two sliced onions, but no shallots. She suspected tampering; her blood began to boil.

The restaurant's cooks began to busy themselves in the far reaches of the kitchen. One cook discovered another pork leg--Xiomara's pork leg--marinating in the walk-in refrigerator. The leg covered with shallots, it turned out, was the one Healy was marinating to serve as a weekend special at Oye! Ardolina's leg was safe all along.

Thursday turned out to be a bright fall day, warm in the sun, chilly in the shade. In the backyard of Ardolina's La Can~ada home, the swimming pool winked. Frank, the dachshund, and Atlas, the German Shepherd, tussled on the brick patio. In the kitchen, with its cool gray walls, skylight and restaurant-quality equipment, Gloria Estefan, El Cachao and Arturo Sandoval took turns on the sound system, knives stuttered on cutting boards, the food processor crescendoed briefly and the correctly seasoned pork leg--correctly seasoned, that is, according to some parties--was cooking in a slow oven.

Healy pureed shrimp for tamales; Ardolina stirred a colorful sofrito for black beans. "The sofrito goes into hot beans," she said, as she dumped the sauteed peppers, onion, garlic and cumin into the bean pot. "Then I deglaze the pan with red wine."

"Red wine?" Healy asked. "Isn't that cheating?"

"I have my own tricks," Xiomara replied.

The black beans are a standard accompaniment to her entree, the pork leg. She prepared another side dish, fufu, or mashed plantain, with chicharrones. For her appetizer, Ardolina made okra soup (sopa de quimbombo). It also starts with a sofrito, this one flavored with slices of Spanish-style chorizo, a smoked garlicky sausage.

The okra was washed and thoroughly dried with towels. To prevent it from becoming slimy as Ardolina cut it, she wiped the knife blade after slicing each pod.

Meanwhile, Healy filled corn husks with a mixture of pureed shrimp, corn, cornmeal, shallots, garlic and cream. "I generally hate cooking at home," he muttered. "There are no people to wash dishes. Everything accumulates. I have to stop and clean up, and I get cranky."

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