LIFESTYLE

Bobby Flay's Empanada Battle

Did a Boricua straight from El Viejo San Juan, Puerto Rico, just lose an empanada competition to an Irish dude from New York City?

Yes.

But it’s very important to note that the stage for this contest was the season finale of “Throwdown with Bobby Flay”—and the victor none other than Food Network big dog himself, Bobby Flay.

After the flour dust settled and in a rather unexpected turnout, Flay beat Puerto Rican chef Frank Maldonado in a Battle of the Beef Empanada, a decision that did not go un-contested by the losing side.

Even though the challenge is all in good fun, and even better publicity, conspiracy theories quietly circulated. Some said the judges had their plates confused, others said there might have been personal grudges.

Jose Luis Flores, Miami-based pastry chef extraordinaire, and Denise Oller, Puerto Rican-born culinary expert and cooking show host, were asked to judge the competition. Afterward, the judges both stood (one perhaps more firmly than the other) alongside their choice.

“You have to be fair when you qualify. It is not about the restaurant or the person, It is about who made the best empanada. Denise was a little conflicted but I have been a judge before,” said Flores.

Indeed, objectivity was a slight challenge for fellow Puerto Rican judge Oller. The Emmy-award winning journalist had to remember that this was not about brotherhood but about the three categories in which she had to rate the tasty turnovers: authenticity, flavor and presentation.

“It was a very tough decision. Flay’s empanada was more complex, it popped in your mouth. But the other was also exquisite...I mean, with two beautiful babies how does one choose?” said Oller.

In the end, most meat lovers would probably agree that the braised, shredded short rib (used by Flay) trumps the good ol’ ground beef (used by Maldonado).

Either way, the show marked a milestone for Maldonado. With a blend of determination and good fortune, this child from humble beginnings had just gone national. Though Maldonado, who began his career in the kitchen of a family-owned seafood restaurant, always knew he was destined for chefdom.

“My summer camp was in the kitchen of my mother’s restaurant,” Maldonado said during his interview on “Throwdown.”

Today, Maldonado is the Executive Chef of the upscale Manhattan eatery Sazon (where, full disclosure, the writer is a part-time manager). But it was his animated personality and diverse array of musical talent that caught the Food Network’s attention earlier in the year. (He plays the flute, congas, bongos and is working on a book that supposedly links spirituality, food and love.) As a result, the network offered him the chance to create a pilot called, “Eating en Español.” Several meetings and many English lessons later, he was ready to take on the three-day taping.

On the last day, Maldonado was taping a “studio audience” style cooking show at Sazon when— in true “Throwdown” fashion—he was surprised by the Iron Chef himself. Maldonado eagerly accepted the challenge and the battle of the empanada ensued.

Maldonado left La Isla del Encanto and most of his immediate family to pursue his dream of becoming a top notch big city chef. The night the episode aired, he already felt famous. He could call back to his elderly mother on the island and tell her to turn to “Canal 23 pa’ ver el show mio.”

“I am nowhere near finished, but today I feel happy,” he said after the viewing.

As servers passed mini empanadas to the cheering crowd, Maldonado smiled from ear to ear. He may not have won the battle, but he was still going after the war.

Erica Lopez is a freelance writer for Fox News Latino. 

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