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Perennial Virant Sous Chef Will Cook at Kentucky Derby

By Janet Rausa Fuller | April 23, 2013 6:50am

LINCOLN PARK — A few weeks ago, Carlo Lamagna applied to be on the Food Network competition show, "Chopped."

He's convinced he won't be hearing back anytime soon.

"I was a little inebriated," he chuckled.

That may be the only thing not working in his favor right now.

The sous chef at Perennial Virant in Lincoln Park has reached the finals in a national seafood cooking-contest to be held at the Kentucky Derby in Louisville on May 1. The winner gets a two-page spread in Saveur magazine.

The week after he returns, Lamagna starts his new job as executive chef of Benny's Chop House, 444 N. Wabash Ave.

And in non-culinary news, he and his wife just had their first child, a boy.

Lamagna, 32, advanced past 29 other chefs and two rounds in the Skuna Bay Salmon Chef Challenge, a timed contest in which chefs must filet and skin a whole salmon, remove the pin bones and prepare a dish. And not just any dish. Lamagna's combines cold-smoked salmon belly with a carrot-cumin puree and a citrus fruit relish punctuated with fennel, grilled ramps and cilantro.

Lamagna said he didn't expect to get this far in the contest. His boss, Paul Virant, the chef and owner of Perennial Virant and Vie in Western Springs, knew otherwise.

"He shined. He had a high yield, and he was quick," said Virant, noting Lamana's skill in breaking down the salmon. "He has a really good understanding of the whole animal."

That knack for butchering is part of what set Lamagna apart early on at Perennial Virant, where he developed the charcuterie program, Virant said. When the restaurant started serving brunch not long after opening, he jumped at the chance to lead it.

"He's one of those people you know you can count on," Virant said.

Lamagna does have an improvisational streak. He likes to hold his own "Iron Chef"-style challenges with co-workers at Perennial Virant.

"Out of the blue, I'll yell out, 'You've got five minutes to come up with something,' " he said. "It's the quietest you'll see everyone."

Pop-up dinners also keep him on his toes. He did one in early April at the incubator dining space Company in Evanston. The menu was Filipino, a nod to his heritage and his desire to open a Filipino restaurant down the road.

Lamagna hasn't scheduled another pop-up just yet — a new job, a newborn and a trip to the Derby are enough for now. But he already is thinking of how to make his mark at Benny's.

"For a steakhouse, they have pretty badass seafood," he said. "That'll be my creative outlet."