Annually we compete in a local Iron Chef challenge that incorporates restaurants from all over the NW Oregon coast and the SW Washington coasts. It is a fundraiser for the Clatsop County United Way and has been a successful event for them for 4 yrs. The way it is set-up can be a little hard to comprehend so I am going to attempt to simplify that. 8-10 restaurants from around the area show up with a bite of food for about 400 people. Ticket buyers have the chance to try all of the different samples and interact with the chefs from the various restaurants. Chefs answer the same questions about 388 times, and describe the dish that they have composed what seems like a trillion times. While it may be easy to assume that a chef can make anything he wants to wow these ticket buying guests it isn't the case. On paper, yes, but in all actuality the food any given restaurant shows up with has to be able to be held (or the extremely risky attempt at cooking table side), easily presented, easily eaten, and because the restaurants themselves are picking up the bill for the ingredients there are many factors that can dock your creativity. In this particular event the paying ticket customers are also given a form and able to cast a vote for the table they deem has the best tasting offering of the evening. From a cooks perspective working events like this can be tough, but for me they are always a nice break from normal kitchen life. Putting on your best chef coat, seeing peers, and friends from the community and really having the chance to promote you and/or your restaurant is always great, and there are always networking connections to be made. A new oyster guy, produce guy, or chef in town all deserve face time, and the opportunity to eat bites from all these different restaurants doesn't happen very often.
At the same time, or even surprisingly before, there is another competition going on in the same format for desserts. Cakes, panna cottas, cookies, and tarts are the norm. Obviously a few less restaurants have the ability to do that so the field is usually around 5 qualified restaurants. The same customers have a chance to rate the dessert offerings and cast there vote for top treat.
As the customers make their rounds of the room trying up bites of things, sipping wine, and catching up with friends the main stage activity is where the whole show comes together. 4 chefs from around the area are staging to do a "Iron Chef" style battle. They will draw knives to find a team mate, then be presented with a secret ingredient, then have a few minutes to talk with each other and formulate a plan, then one hour to cook a 3 course meal, with 3 plates of each course using the secret ingredient cooking on only a few sucky portable butane burners. There is a pantry with all the basic flavorants, stocks, produce, as well as minimal kitchen equipment. Chefs are welcome to bring things they may want, but if you bring ingredients you must bring enough for the other team to use if they desire. As they cook things are auctioned off, people are interviewed, and thanks are given to all who attended. There food is judged by local "celebrities" in the past who have included the mayor, senator, business tycoon, football coach, out of town guest chefs, etc. Votes are tallied and a winning team is selected. The award for the best dessert bite is given, and then the award to the top 2 restaurants in the savory category are handed out. Those two winning chefs will compete in the "Iron Chef" portion of the program the following year against the two winning chef's from this years actual cookoff- although the teams may be a bit different as they aren't decided until moments before the event. A good time is had by all, and it is a huge fundraiser for the local United Way, which directly feeds money into many other worthwhile causes in the area.
Will Leroux has owned this event for the last three years and last nights was no different. Partly to alleviate the stress of actually competing, and also because they are already included in the event, the four chefs who are cooking do not also bring a dish for people to try. The first year we took a dish, it was long ago and I have no idea what it was anymore, and we won the peoples choice part of the competition. Then Will kept winning, even as I was promoted to Executive chef it was decided that since he never left the company he would continue to compete....and apparently win. We haven't had to bring savory food to this event since that first year. Then a few years ago we were asked to man the newly formatted dessert booth and since I am fortunate to have a pastry chef that is a genius that seemed like a no brainer. She would develop and execute all the food, and I would transport it and talk to every one at the event as she is not very interested in that end of it. We were out for blood, and last year we won the dessert category by a landslide. It was repeated again this year with a taste of "smore" a mini graham cracker crumb, then a milk chocolate and marscapone mousse, then an espresso ganache, finished with a meringue which we toasted table side with a small butane torch. It was an attempt to transport people to a campfire on the beach, and when we toasted the meringue it really worked, and worked really well.
One of the other chef's who was competing either with or against Will is another chef from the company (Aaron) whom I have the upmost respect for. We are both around the same age and both have been trying to cut it in the kitchen for a very long time. He is the only guy in the entire company that works more hours then I do, and has a wealth of knowledge that I telephone him and tap into whenever I am in need of another opinion. On top of that The MC of the event was yet another chef from the company, along with a news reporter from Portland, and he is in charge of organizing the event, getting the food donations, and giving the audience an idea of what the chef's are doing during the hour of cooking.
So to recap. My restaurant wins the dessert competition for the second year running. Will gets paired with Aaron instead of against him and they proceeded to bring the pain to the other team. The 4th member of our Executive chef team as a company is there announcing the whole event. We didn't just have a good night, we absolutely dominated the entire night. Our three restaurants weren't beat. Winning everything we had attempted for the evening. If ever there was a moment to be proud of our team this was it. As a team we are an amazingly well rounded group of cooks, all of whom bring their own talents to the table, working together lending ingredients, encouragement, and opinions whenever needed. I have never been so proud of an achievement professionally. Four hundred people to see that we mean business, and on that night we all brought our A game. Showing the rest of our restaurant community that we are setting the bar and pushing it higher, and fortunately have the resources to make it happen.
Then in perhaps the biggest news.... after Will (the corporate chef/my mentor) is awarded Iron Chef champ for the fourth year in a row, I am unknowingly called to the front, and since it has been deemed by the organizers that he can't be beat, he is retiring on top and it is announced that he is passing the torch to me, who will cook in his spot next year in the Iron Chef portion of the competition. A nice idea from someone that I wish I was a touch better prepared to hear. Perhaps with Aaron, or against him, with a few other very well qualified chefs from around the area. I have about 363 days to train. Thanks for reading.