Chef Eric Batten
Thit Kho and Bún Thịt Nướng (Soup and Sandwich)
Chef Kurt Kwiatkowski

On Thursday, Feb. 16, chefs from all over the state gathered at the Lansing Center to compete in the Michigan Taste of Elegance. MSU Executive Chef Eric Batten received top honors at the event, earning the Chef Par Excellence title and the People’s Choice Award for his original pork entrée.

Held in conjunction with the Michigan Pork Symposium, this year’s competition featured 12 chefs, showcasing their culinary skills and crafting a unique dish utilizing a cut of pork. For the event, Chef Eric used a play on words to create his own Thit Kho and Bún Thịt Nướng (soup and sandwich).

His Thit Kho featured braised pork shoulder simmered with white onions, brown sugar, jalapeno, a fresh cinnamon stick, fish sauce, pork stock, coconut milk, star anise and carrots, then garnished with cilantro. This aromatic pork stew with French influence was served in a bowl with crispy bread topped with roasted garlic aioli and fresh herbs. “The Vietnamese have a huge French influence in their culture,” Batten shared.

The second part of the dish, the Bún Thịt Nướng, consisted of marinated pork secreto cutlets, crushed and toasted peanuts, fried vermicelli bean thread, pickled vegetables and nouc cham sauce with mint, basil and cilantro, rolled up in fresh lettuce leaves. “This dish is typically served in a bowl with vermicelli noodles, chopped up egg roll, grilled pork, herbs, chili oils and other ingredients,” Batten explained. “I put a personal twist on it to create a sandwich and suit my theme.”

Each state holds a Taste of Elegance competition, and winners receive $1,000 as well as a trip to California to attend the 2017 Pork Summit held at the Culinary Institute of America. The Chef Par Excellence also helps judge the state competition the following year. Chef Eric won the competition in 2015 and came back to judge last year. The recent event in February was his first year back, so he was surprised and honored to take home the title once again. “The competition gets fiercer every year,” Chef Eric emphasized. “You learn a lot from other competitors and at the Summit in California, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to be in that environment once again. My wife and I are going to take some extra time and make a vacation out of it; I love it out there, and it served as a great motivator to win the Taste of Elegance!”

This year’s judges were Neel Sahni, the foodservice marketing manager for the National Pork Board; Chef Paul Adams from Hawkshead Restaurant in South Haven; and Gordon Wenk, chief deputy director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Some of the judges’ comments include “great flavor and appearance” and “its spot on, with some true authentic flavors coming through.” During the competition, the chef’s dishes are also displayed and spectators vote on the most aesthetically pleasing dish. In addition to being the winning dish, Chef Eric’s Thit Kho and Bún Thịt Nướng received the People’s Choice Award recognition.

MSU was well represented this year, with Corporate Chef Kurt Kwiatkowski taking second place with his grilled BBQ pork chop steak paired with collard greens, creamy cheese grits and house BBQ sauce. Some judges’ comments on Chef Kurt’s dish include “perfectly cooked, great flavor with BBQ” and “near a 50 on taste” (the maximum amount of points for taste is 50).