Home cook bests pro chef in Table Hopping competition

Craig Couture, who won the semifinal of the Home Rangers cooking competition in August, on Saturday bested Melissa Doney, executive chef of Brown’s Brewing in Troy, in the finale, held during the Saratoga Wine & Food Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. As his prize — on top of the dozens of tickets to SPAC classical events next summer, and four VIP passes to the 2018 Wine & Food Festival — Couture gets a 30-inch BlueStar RCS Series range. The gas range, with an infrared broiler and more, has a retail value of about $3,600. It is courtesy of Adirondack Appliance, which co-sponsors the five-year-old cooking competition with Table Hopping, timesunion.com and SPAC. I emceed the cook-off.

Couture, a Stillwater resident and teacher at Schalmont High School in Rotterdam, is an enthusiastic home cook (story and recipe here) who just a few weeks ago moved into a newly built house. He tells me he looks forward to swapping out his home’s basically brand-new stove with the even-newer BlueStar.

In a remarkable and unexpected verdict, Couture’s plates — which seemed basic compared to Doney’s — contained such superior flavor, and lacked mistakes, that he was the unanimous winner for the judges: Boston chef Jay Hajj, celebrity chef Suvir Saran and Ariana Phillips Tessier, senior food editor of Food Network Magazine.

The competitors had one hour to make two courses, working from a stocked pantry and with two surprise ingredients: whole branzino and dark Belgian chocolate. The fish flummoxed Couture, seriously putting him off his game for about the first 20 minute. His fillets were so sloppy he ended up serving the fish in small pieces, which he decided to call “flaked.” He served it atop a deeply flavorful mushroom-herb risotto. Doney handled the fish expertly, but missed a few pin bones, and her risotto was undercooked. Couture’s second course, sliced apple with spicy chocolate sauce and salted caramel, was so good — a sophisticated spin on a caramel apple — that Hajj vowed to try to recreate it at home. Doney made an apple tart with chocolate-oatmeal stout ganache. The pastry was undercooked, the judges said, and the beer overwhelmed the chocolate.

Couture, a veteran-but-never-winner of previous Table Hopping cook-offs at SPAC, won quarterfinal and semifinal cook-offs in August.