Grilled eel with Spanish-style stew
Grilled eel with Spanish-style stew Credit: Julia Thiel

The Chef: Ryan Poli (Tavernita)

The Challenger: Chris Curren (Stout Barrel House & Galley)

The Ingredient: Eel

Eel blood is highly toxic: the New York Times reported in 1899 that a dozen drops is enough to kill a dog. The poison is destroyed by heat, though, making it perfectly safe to eat eel as long as it’s cooked. But before he could cook his eels, Ryan Poli had to kill them. Eels are typically sold live, which is how his arrived.

“They’re so creepy,” Poli said. He and his staff discovered just how slippery eels are when one slithered out of its container and fell onto the floor; it took several tries to retrieve the mucus-covered fish, which had a tendency to slip out of the hands of its would-be captors.

Poli kept the three eels in a container of water overnight, and when he came in the next morning they were so still that he initially thought they were already dead. They weren’t. “I was like, all right, this is going to happen. We’re going to do this today, guys.”

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Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

He used a traditional method, driving a stake through the first eel’s brain (nailing eels to a wall is also common), which killed it but didn’t stop it from squirming around. “We had to hold it down while we took the bones out, and then after that it stopped moving,” he said. “And then when we were putting the skewers through, it was still twitching.”

That was about an hour before Poli and his chef de cuisine, Greg Bastien, began grilling the eel—but when they went to put the skewers on the grill, they noticed it was still twitching. “Why won’t you die?!” Poli demanded.

EelCredit: Julia Thiel

They basted it with a glaze of sherry vinegar, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, and sugar and served the grilled eel with a Spanish-style stew: beans, blood sausage, chorizo, pork shoulder, and bacon in a saffron-paprika broth. Pickled garlic, Fresno chiles, flat-leaf parsley, extra-virgin olive oil, and lemon juice finished the dish.

“I was afraid that the eel might taste too much like the ocean floor, dirty—like frog legs or something,” Poli said. “But it’s a very clean flavor.” Still, he said, he thought that omitting the eel stock (one early idea) had been a good decision.

“The eel really picks up the flavor of the wood,” Bastien noted after tasting the dish. Both chefs were happy with it, and Poli said he’d even consider putting it on the menu—but only if he could find a way to get them filleted. “How much can you take of coming in every morning knowing you have to kill four or five eel?” he asked. “It would really weigh on a man’s soul, I think.”

Who’s next:

Matthias Merges of Yusho, working with sea cucumbers. Poli discovered fresh sea cucumbers in Spain and loved them, so he kept trying to find them in the U.S. Finally someone said he’d found sea cucumbers for him. “They were dried, and I just remember them being really nasty and hard to work with,” Poli said. “Matt being the Japanese expert he is, he can come up with something creative.”