Dozens of high school culinary students and professional chefs battled for recognition of their cooking talent at the third annual “Battle of the Burgers” at Pechanga Resort Casino Oct. 19.
Seven different local eateries served up the best burgers they could muster, while 13 teams of Temecula Valley High School culinary students and Pechanga chefs competed for the best custom loaded fries — with the students taking the lead and the professionals serving as sous chefs.
About 400 people crowded into Pechanga’s Summit Ballroom to sample as much food as they could eat before voting on their personal favorites for the people’s choice awards. Professional judges also taste-tested each burger and fry team’s offerings.
Crush and Brew, Café Champagne, Cork Fire Kitchen, Devilicious Eatery, Mad Madeline’s Grill, Matty G’s and Siggy’s all participated.
Mad Madeline’s eventually took home first-place awards in both the judge’s choice and the people’s choice categories.
The restaurant, which crafted a “Triple 333” burger with a half-pound patty, strips of seasond pork belly, four types of cheeses, straw onions thousand island dressing and sweet relish onion jam spread, has previously won first place people’s choice awards, but never a judge’s choice award. On Saturday, it won in both categories.
“It feels great, especially the judge’s award, I’ve been wanting that for three years,” Mad Madeline’s owner Sid Hamilton said. “I’ve been waiting for a long time.”
Hamilton said a lot of thought went into what to serve at the competition.
“When I won that trophy in 2017 the thought becomes, ‘what are you gonna do next year,’” he said. “But looking for a burger you have to think outside the box. How do you do that? You do your research and start tasting a lot of things that you want to taste … It’s just going to food shows and all of that.”
It’s the event’s second year involving students from Temecula Valley High School’s culinary arts program as well as its second at Pechanga, said Annette Brown, director of public relations for Visit Temecula Valley, which co-sponsored the event.
“It started three years ago at the town square park in Old Town, and it was just an idea to promote the restaurants,” Brown said.
She said she met with Pechanga after the first Battle of the Burgers in 2017 to try to get a bigger venue, and they suggested involving the school district.
“So I contacted and I found out they had this whole (Career Technical Education) program and it’s just a win-win for everybody,” Brown said.
She said Pechanga opted not to have any of its restaurants compete in the actual burger competition since it was hosting the event.
“So then we started brainstorming about what could Pechanga do,” Brown said. “So we thought fries go with burgers, let’s partner the students and it just evolved from that.”
At the first Battle of the Burgers, each restaurant simply dropped off their food to be served. Since 2018, each restaurant has cooked up its food at Pechanga during the competition, which has cut down the number of competing restaurants.
“A lot of them can’t cook off-site or they don’t have the equipment to cook off-site, or the staff. So it’s a little bit more of a challenge to get the restaurants to the location,” Brown said. “But it’s a lot more dynamic of an event so I think it’s worth it.”
Ryan Savage is a Temecula Valley High junior who was on the Bamboo team that prepared tempura fries with shrimp and vegetables in spicy lime dressing.
Savage said he took Culinary 1 his freshman year of high school and has advanced every year to the highest level, which is Culinary 3.
Most of the preparation for his team’s fries, he said, was done in advance.
“The only thing that’s actually cooked here is the fries, so I would be shredding the fries and she (the professional chef) would be the one deep frying the fries,” Savage said.
Olivia Fretz, who was on the Great Oak Steakhouse team that prepared the “Asian Over the Border” fries — Cajun fries with soy marinade prime beef filet, watermelon radish, cilantro and secret sauce — said her team brainstormed their idea about two weeks prior to the event.
She said they wanted to “make a twist on carne asada fries with a little Asian twist on it.”
Cesar Solarzano, a chef from Cafe Champagne at Thornton Winery, one of the competing burger venues, said hours of prep work went into his eatery’s offering — a french dip burger.
“Me and a few other guys did about 12-hour shifts yesterday preparing all the burgers,” he said. “We did all the patties by hand, and the brioche burger buns, sauteeing all the peppers, caramelzing all the anions, making all the aioles from scratch,” Solarzano said. “Everything’s from scratch, we didn’t buy anything in bottles or anything from the store.”
Spencer Szczygiel from Crush and Brew said his restaurant started planning about several weeks in advance for its brie burger.
“Roughly six weeks we’ve been kind of forecasting and organizing,” he said.
One of the primary difficulties his team encountered was allocating the time to get everything done.
“Normally, both of us would be down at the store selling burgers,” Szcyzygiel said.
The cooking environment inside the Pechanga ballroom also posed some challenges, he said.
“The only thing we sacrificed really is we have a much smaller cooking surface, so we can only fit six patties at once as opposed to a grill where we could probably get 10 to 12 or maybe a little bit more,” Szcyzygiel said. “But it’s kind of fun. The guys enjoy it — they kind of live for trying to make a lot of food really quickly without sacrificing, so this is kind of putting them to the test.”
Monica Bratt of Redlands, who said she was invited to the competition by a friend from Temecula, said she thought all of burgers were amazing.
“The fries were really good, too, and I’m not even a fry fan,” she said. “So I actually liked them and ate more of them than I probably should have.”
Brian Kuramoto was at the competition to support his son, Dylan Kuramoto, who was cooking up baked chicken dip fries with ranch sauce.
“The food’s been awesome. It’s been very different but incredible,” Brian Kuramoto said.
“I actually think his station was one of the best.”
The full list of winners in each category includes:
First place: Temptations Food Court – Surf & Turf
Second place: Blazing Noodles – Steak & Shrimp
Third place: Pechanga Buffet – Polynesian Chicken
First place: Mad Madeline’s Grill – Triple 333
Second place: Matty G’s – Field of Dreams
Third place: Devilicious – The Craft Burger
First place: Journey’s End – Loaded Chicken
Second place: Bamboo – Tempura
Third place: Great Oak Steakhouse – Asian Over the Border
First place: Mad Madeline’s Grill – Triple 333
Second place: Devilicious – The Craft Burger
Third place: Crush and Brew – Brie Burger
Will Fritz can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org