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The Chef Who Would Be King

How Mai Thai Executive Chef Justin Scheihing became culinary king of the mountain

Lex Nelson

It was a few days before the Shore Lodge Culinary Festival’s Culinary King of the Mountain Competition, and Mai Thai Executive Chef Justin Scheihing, one of two announced competitors, was relaxed. To hear him talk about the high-pressure competition and the four-course meal that followed, you’d think the weekend was just another dinner service.

“They explained most of it to me already,” Scheihing told CCN before heading to McCall to compete. “It’s just a black box cookoff, so you can kind of do any style and anything that you want. It’s kind of in the style of the TV show Chopped, where you have three rounds, and someone gets eliminated every round.”

In fact, the annual showdown was modeled almost exactly on Chopped, pitting four seasoned chefs against each other in three 30-minute rounds: appetizer, entree and dessert. They’d perform not just for a panel of judges scoring their dishes, but an audience of festival attendees who would bid to taste their creations. As an added challenge, each round would feature four “mystery” ingredients unveiled at the event, and the chefs would have to cook with a team of amateurs who had paid a hefty sum to join the fun. While working with an unfamiliar staff is a challenge for any professional, Scheihing was taking it in stride.

“I’m not worried about it at all. I think anybody who would pay that amount of money to be involved probably has a pretty good understanding of the kitchen already, maybe not at a super high level but I’m sure that most people are foodies, into culinary, and they know what the food should taste like,” he said.

On the day of the competition, Scheihing faced off in a makeshift kitchen against Chef Franck Bacquet of Bacquet’s, Chef Vern Bauer of Bishop Kelly High School and Chef Christopher Zahn of Zee’s Rooftop Cafe. Each of them had just 12 feet of counter space, a stocked pantry and their experience to work with. Scheihing was leaning heavily on the latter.

“Obviously I’m a chef at Mai Thai, and what we do is northern Thai food, so whatever I do is going to fit into that kind of genre,” he told CCN before the competition. “And that was, you know, one question that I asked up front, was if the pantry was going to stock things like galangal [a root in the ginger family] and lemongrass and coconut milk and that kind of stuff.”

When he learned it would, Scheihing felt ready to tackle even the most dastardly of baskets. He’d also gotten lucky with his team: two Mai Thai regulars he’d met before and liked.

Together, they put out a series of dishes that the judges—The Grill Dads co-host Mark Anderson, Duckhorn Vineyards Winemaker Renee Ary and Lucky Fins Executive Chef Wiley Earl—consistently praised.

“The only problem with this is saving room for the next dishes,” Anderson said of Schiehing’s first course, tempura-fried soft-shell crab, topped with wilted beet greens and swimming in lemongrass-curry soup. “I would love to live in that broth.”

His second dish, elk larb and a razor clam play on tom yum, went over well, too. Anderson gave it high points for creativity, and Ary called it “bright and expressive,” though said the elk was a bit overdone.

Scheihing evaded being “chopped” in the first two rounds, surviving to take on Chef Bacquet over a tricky dessert basket of baby bananas, pound cake, fig Triscuits and port-spiked drunken cheddar. After he presented his dish of butter-fried pound cake French toast (crowned with a fig Triscuit-crusted baby banana and swimming in a Thai-flavored cheddar custard) to the judges, Scheihing said he was sure his team would win. The night before when they’d gotten a list of potential basket ingredients, he had formulated a plan to keep stress levels down during the contest.

“I kind of had an idea in my mind of some dishes that I knew were going to work with any of those ingredients, so that’s kind of the way we went,” he said.

Scheihing was right to be confident: Amid audience applause, the judges crowned him the 2019 Culinary King of the Mountain, noting that his appetizer had been the day’s best dish. If there were one piece of constructive criticism they could give, Earl said, it would be to step outside of his Thai food comfort zone—though clearly playing it safe wasn’t enough to cost him the crown.

“I wasn’t just representing myself in the competition, I was representing Mai Thai,” Scheihing said a few days after the competition, adding that because of that he didn’t regret his choice to steer consistently toward Thai flavors.

The wine dinner for 65 that followed the contest had gone smoothly too, he said. Each chef had contributed a course, and he’d handled the entree: a lightly smoked pork neck with red curry, paired with a Duckhorn Vineyards cabernet he’d tested beforehand for compatibility. He’d been saving the necks, which came from whole pigs Mai Thai ordered and broke down from HardBall Farms in Nampa, specifically for the event.

Fresh on the heels of victory, Scheihing is already hip-deep in another competition: Boise Weekly’s Best of Boise, where he’s up for Best Chef, once again taking on Bacquet. He’ll have to wait until Wednesday, May 29, to find out if he has pulled off another win.