Pandemic activity turns into weekly cooking competition at The Exchange

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — The Thursday Throwdown started as a fun cooking competition among friends at home during quarantine. Now, it’s a weekly cook-off held at The Exchange, with a knockout-style tournament.

The cook-off is run similar to the Food Network cooking show Chopped; contestants are given an hour to cook a meal where they have to use four different fresh produce items supplied locally by Dagon Produce, a local beer chosen by the bar, and a surprise protein ingredient. The cooks then present their food to judges, who give them scores, and a winner is chosen.

“It’s just a great way to get a lot of people in here throughout the evening, and just stay and have fun all night long,” said Tony Nichols, the executive chef at The Exchange. “It’s just a lot of fun man, everybody really enjoys it and gets excited about it.”

Though it started at home, once it was taken public, it became a hit. Nichols said a few dozen people come every week to watch the cooks compete, and the bar even installed a camera and monitor so people can watch in the lounge area of the bar. The best part for the audience: they get to eat the food as well.

“The competitors cook three appetizer-sized portions for the judges, and about 20 other portions for the public to taste for free, so anybody can come down any time,” Nichols said.

Devan Hoelscher and Shanda Cunningham are Del Mar College culinary students who were competing as a team in the semi-final of the competition Thursday. They showed up to a meeting at The Exchange one day, found out about the competition, and decided to sign up.

“We were invited with school, met chef Tony, he’s like, ‘hey we need some people for our competition,’ and somebody signed us up,” Hoelscher said, pointing to Cunningham.

The Del Mar duo faced Matt Hole in the semi-final, who has no culinary background.

“I love to cook, my parents are avid cooks, my whole family growing up in England loved to garden and cook our own produce. I’m just passionate about food,” Hole said.

After the last year-plus with the pandemic, the contestants are just glad to have events like this to enjoy.

“Just to be able to get out and move, and eat in restaurants is wonderful. To be able to do events like this, it’s fun,” Hole said.

“The variety, the challenge to create something, and just being out in public is fun,” Hoelsher said. ”And just meeting new people, being out in the competition, having the ability to try and cook new things that we probably wouldn’t have on a day-to-day basis,” Cunningham added.

The competition is every Thursday night at The Exchange, starting at 7:30. The finals for the current competition will be June 10, but a new competition will start again the following week.

“It just kind of blew up, I have people already signing up for the next tournament, so it’s going to stick around as long as people want to do it,” Nichols said.

People interested in signing up to compete can contact Nichols through The Exchange’s Facebook page.