On a sweltering summer evening on the far west side of Albuquerque, a who’s who of the local food scene gathered at rotisserie restaurant Fuego 505 to witness what promised to be a battle for the ages. Two esteemed chefs, Fernando Ruiz of Escondido in Santa Fe and Israel “Izz” Rivera of The Shop in Albuquerque, were set to face off in the first round of the quarterfinals of the cooking competition known as 505 Food Fights. Since 2015, the bracket-style culinary showdown has pitted local chefs (and sometimes bartenders) against each other in an effort to help build and reinforce the local food community and, most importantly, to raise tens of thousands of dollars for New Mexico charities.
Each season has a different theme and this year’s special “All Star” edition featuring past winners is proving to be the most challenging to date. Although the competition is difficult, its rules are simple. The chefs have one hour to execute two unique dishes using three mystery ingredients, including a “culinary curveball.” (Past curveballs have included whole octopus, fiddlehead ferns, and birthday cake.) A panel of guest judges score the dishes based on flavor, execution, creativity, and use of the secret ingredients.
The lively dining room grew quiet as hosts Mike White of Albuquerque’s High Point Grill & Taproom and Dan Gilpatrick of Shamrock Foods made their way to the front of the large bar that wraps around Fuego 505’s open kitchen. White, who took over as director of the 505 Food Fights nonprofit in 2018, welcomed the crowd and explained that all of the night’s proceeds (via cover charge, raffle, and an auction offering a seat at the judges’ table) would support the organization and its mission. The hosts then introduced the competitors and revealed tonight’s secret ingredients: leg of lamb, fresh apricots, and—“because it is All Stars, after all”—a box of frozen chocolate-and-custard mini eclairs.
Unfazed, the cooks raced to grab their ingredients and tools. Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” kicked in over the restaurant’s loudspeakers and the audience crowded around the kitchen. Both chefs started by tackling the lamb leg—Rivera grinding the meat while Ruiz finely diced. “Izz, what are you going to do with those eclairs?” I shouted out. “It’s . . . it’s coming together in my head, OK?” he answered.
“Normally, Izz would be the number one seed, he’s a big crowd favorite,” White told me, “but tonight he’s the underdog.” Ruiz, whose impressive résumé includes La Boca, Palace Prime, and Santacafé, is somewhat of a local food celebrity. He has competed on—and won—Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games, Chopped, and Beat Bobby Flay. Rivera is also no stranger to the spotlight, having appeared on Beat Bobby Flay and Supermarket Stakeout, although he didn’t take home either prize.
Around the dining room, attendees cheered on the chefs and strategized about what they would have made. Chef Steve Riley of Albuquerque’s Mesa Provisions was thinking grilled lamb with a chocolate-based sauce from the eclair. Pastry chef Vanessa Martinez said ginger-poached apricots with warming spices would go well with that. Everyone was shaking hands, talking shop, and catching up with old friends and coworkers. “At the end of the day, it’s all about having fun,” said Gilpatrick, a longtime sponsor of the event. According to Javier Montaño, head chef of Forty Nine Forty in Corrales, “Chefs are some of the hardest-working people on the block, so to have them come out on a day off, for charity, is pretty great.” Molly Montaño added, “We [the food industry] got so disconnected during the pandemic, so having all these restaurant people in one place, it’s like, oh we do have a community.”
Only thirty minutes into the cook, Chef Ruiz’s first dish was ready for the judges. “He’s always so fast,” White marveled. Audience members gathered around the judges’ table—some holding forks in case an opportunity to sneak a bite arose. Ruiz presented a lamb tartare with diced apricots and Texas toast. The judges remarked that it was tender with nice acid and heat, but could use a touch of salt. Next, Rivera’s lamb meatballs were ready. The judges were impressed that the chef used eclair dough instead of bread crumbs as a binding agent. The second round once again had Ruiz finishing first with a beautifully plated Moroccan-spiced grilled lamb, apricot gastrique, blistered shishito, charred endive, and an eclair milkshake for dessert. Rivera ended the round with a lamb asada taco, using the eclair filling as crema and garnishing with calabacitas, apricot, and carrot.
Deliberation between the judges is tense. The two chefs’ dishes were equally delicious, they say. However, Ruiz’s plating was more artful and Rivera had made more interesting use of the curveball ingredient. “I don’t choose a winner,” says judge and Fuego 505 chef and owner Raul Maestas. “Well, you kind of have to,” White instructs.
At last, the hosts announce that they have a winner—by split decision. The two contestants stand side-by-side like a couple of boxers, still sweaty from the grueling match. “Scoring has never been this close,” Gilpatrick says. By one point, and in an upset, it’s chef Rivera! Ruiz, who has pretty much kept his stoic game face on for most of the evening, breaks into a big smile and gives his colleague a genuine congratulations and warm hug. As White says, “There’s a lot of pride with these [chefs] but ultimately they know what’s important and check their egos at the door.” This is clearly the case for the competition veteran. “I like this event more than the TV stuff [I’ve done] because it actually does something good for people,” Ruiz tells me. I turn to Rivera and ask how he’s feeling about the victory. “Um . . . fuck?! I was super nervous to go against Fernando, the guy’s a legend,” Rivera says. “So I came in tonight knowing I had to do more than I had done before.” Does Rivera believe he can go on to win the whole tournament? “I feel like I just did!”
The event raised $1,725, and White says the nonprofit is on track to raise more than $40,000 this year for causes such as the Autism Society New Mexico, the Ronald McDonald House, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and The Kitchen Kids Inc. (of which White is founder). Food Fights take place every other Monday—the next is July 31 at Fuego505—and there are four quarter- and semifinal matches left before the season finale on September 25. And there is a special 505 Food Fight team challenge later this fall during the annual Behind the Mask fundraiser, where attendees get to eat all the food. The black-tie event, put on by White and his partner, Kathy Delgado, raises money for mental health awareness.
“So many chefs have told me that these events are the highlight of their week or month,” White says. “They come up and tell me, ‘This is my family.’ That alone makes it worth doing.”
Candolin Cook is a historian, writer, editor, and former co-editor of edible New Mexico. She recently received her doctorate in history from the University of New Mexico and is working on her first book.