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Kiss My Grits becomes a foodie force: Top chefs ramp up their games for comfort food showdown

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This was the second-annual Kiss My Grits event, and raised $60,000 for Young Texans Against Cancer. Courtesy of Last Night Pics
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Kiss My Grits winners from Uchi, led by Philip Speer (right). Courtesy of Last Night Pics
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Smoky and sweet: The dark chocolate and vanilla grits popsicles from The Capital at St. Germain won People's Choice. Courtesy of Last Night Pics
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Grits lollipops from Triniti. Courtesy of Last Night Pics
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The crowd, getting their grits on. Courtesy of Last Night Pics
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In only its second year, Young Texans Against Cancer's Kiss My Grits fundraiser has become a full-fledged, not-to-be-missed food event, and judging by the crowd of party-ready yuppies at The Capitol at St. Germain on last Thursday night, Houston has taken notice.

The event featured a lineup of 10 chefs competing for grits supremacy, including big names like Ryan Hildebrand of Triniti, Beaver's Jonathan Jones, Joshua Martinez and guest Rebecca Masson for The Modular, Ronnie Killen of Killen's Steakhouse and Michael Pellegrino of Max's Wine Dive.

 "At this point it's a toss-up whether I'm going to get full first or drunk first," said new Kansas City Chiefs right tackle Eric Winston. 

These guys weren't just phoning it in, either. While there were some classic takes on grits, including a rich version from Pellegrino with oxtail pieces and braising juice mixed in and Killen's creamy blue corn grits with jalepeño, cheese, roasted poblano, a bacon-cayenne "streusel" and a giant "Nigerian monster" shrimp buried underneath, many chefs took the Southern classic to unexpected places.

The team from The Capital created dessert popsicles of chocolate and vanilla grits, accompanied by an alcoholic mudslide and some dramatic liquid nitrogen smoke. The Modular crew followed through with its trashy Cajun theme from the grits, which were flavored with Louisiana hot sauce and soft shell crawfish, to presenting the judges with a Louisiana craft beer and a shot, plus chef outfits inspired by '90s chola crews.

Not to be outdone, Hildebrand created delicious and playful blue corn grit lollipops topped with a jalepeño, melon and rock shrimp relish and served them with an addictive tequila jalepeño lemonade.

"At this point it's a toss-up whether I'm going to get full first or drunk first," said new Kansas City Chiefs right tackle Eric Winston. Winston, a native of Texas and a Houston Texan for six years, joined Greg Morago of the Houston Chronicle, KHOU's Katherine Whaley and myself on the judging panel.

The Capital at St. Germain was named the people's choice winner, while the judges dubbed Team Uchi, led by Austin-based pastry chef Philip Speer, to be the best of the night.

Uchi wowed with a duet of dishes. The first was a bowl of fresh lobster meat folded into grits and topped with buttered popcorn powder and a froth of “cognac and corn bubbles.” There was also a truly magical grits-centric dessert consisting of corn grits every way you can imagine, as a sorbet, a custard and a grits tuile cookie, topped with a grated "caramel corn bottarga." Cute, Speer, cute.

Another standout offering — and the judges' runner up — was the three-course grits masala from Mary Cuclis of Pondicheri. The trio of samples included a saag and blue grits cutlet with corn raita and Punjabi carrot pickle, a slow-roasted masala baby goat with white grits upma topped with fresh pomegranates, and a honey-pistachio grits cake with strawberries, honey kewra and rose water for dessert — each bite seemed more decadent than the last.

In addition to tasting stations that spanned both the main floor and the mezzanine level of the restaurant, there was also a dance floor for partiers to get down to the retro hits of Skyrocket, as well as a silent auction. Overall the event raised an impressive $60,000, which will benefit the Passport for the Cure program at Texas Children's Cancer Center, melanoma awareness in pediatric cancer at MD Anderson Cancer Center and T-cell therapy research in Melanoma Cancer at MD Anderson.

Going into the event, I was curious whether the fundraiser would always feature grits — if comfort food gets less trendy, does it offer enough to keep people's interest? Based on the variety of dishes on offer, any doubts were resoundingly crushed.

I can't wait until next year.

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