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Event Fri Aug 07 2009
When the cattle call went out soliciting interest in covering this event, it spoke to me. Déjà chef if you will. The comparisons with my professional life were too many to say no to and is how I found myself at the Country Chef's Challenge at Daley Plaza this Thursday, Aug. 6.
The three chef contestants had 30 minutes and $50 to shop the Farmers Market, with an additional 30 minutes to create a dish with their selected ingredients. The results were scored by a panel of judges, the winner claiming bragging rights as "Master of the Market."
Having competed in (and won) numerous similar events, I was intrigued by seeing it as an observer instead of a participant. Highly skilled chef's going "mano a mano" in public, preparing mystery food against the clock, "Iron Chef" style. A daunting task under the best of circumstances and these are not the best of circumstances.
I'm wondering how their approaches differ from or reflect my own, and who seems to feel the most at ease? Jazz immediately jumps to my mind, as this is a true measure of technique and improvisation... handy abilities to have in just about any line of work. It's my theory that artists in general have an edge in cooking as it comes from the same place.
The competitors are: Radhika Desai, a contender on season five of "Top Chef" and a recipient of a critic's choice award from Time Out. Heather Terhune, executive chef of Atwood Cafe, an exquisite Art Deco appointed restaurant in the refurbished Burnham Hotel downtown and Jennifer Gavin, a contestant on "Hell's Kitchen" in 2008. Jennifer has worked with Wolfgang Puck and Gordon Ramsay and currently is the Executive Chef/Owner of Catered Excellence in Chicago.
Being under a microscope like this is challenging, fun, intense and rewarding. It stretches your abilities and flexes your creativity muscles (they're there if you use them). It could just as easily be a nightmare and will be interesting to watch as it plays out under the all-seeing eyes of our illustrious Picasso sculpture.
Arriving early to scope out the market, I wanted to see if what sang out to me would also sing to the other chefs. Mirai Super Sweet Corn from Twin Garden Farms knocked me out. They sampled it raw, straight from the husk and were sold out in under an hour. Best thing I tried all day. Brunkow Cheese of Wisconsin featured a raw milk Cheddar with horseradish besides Brun-Uusto baked cheese with jalapeno (which is even better grilled). Icicle radishes, fresh picked garlic and assorted herbs and greens from Nichols farms could make for some interesting choices. Or Michigan peaches, whose delectable scent perfumed the air as you approached. As far as the farmers market goes, the nicest bounty of the summer.
The Country Chef Challenge is an interesting idea and it was a beautiful day for it... the market was thriving and felt like the first day of summer (even though it's August). And all for a good cause. Whatever we as good citizens/responsible consumers can do to support local sustainable anything and everything, is a meaningful thing.
Viva el mercato de los agricultores.
Chef Radhika Desai picks out produce from the farmers market
After a mad dash through the market, the chefs reassembled onstage to prep and plate in the remaining 30 minutes. The entrees were as follows:
Jennifer Gavin's Grilled Vegetable Focaccia with portobellos (aka "meat from the ground") zucchini, yellow squash, sweet onion relish and pesto. A side of corn salad made use of the Mirai Super Sweet corn combined with cherry tomatoes, red onion and crumbled feta.
Heather Terhune served French Toast Brioche with peach jam and goat milk cheese coupled with blueberry compote featuring orange blossom honey, donut peaches, lavender and vanilla bean.
Radhika Desai offered a salad of mixed field greens, the aforementioned icicle radishes, cherry tomatoes, pickled green beans and butter braised corn with herbed vinaigrette in accompaniment to another Focaccia sandwich of sautéed shiitake mushrooms with garlic and sliced cucumber.
Chef Jennifer Gavin's grilled vegetable focaccia
A couple of my choices made it into the dishes, but given this colorful palette to work from, I found the dishes to be relatively safe and straightforward. Considering the intent was to showcase the pristine produce and to "wow" the judges, I just didn't feel the love as dish after dish fell a bit short of my expectations. Noble efforts, yes, but it surprised me that there were minimal ethnic influences, unique flavor pairings or edgy plate presentations, all of which I expected.
How nice would it have been to see a full-tilt vegetable degustation featuring ragoût of Mirai corn with caramelized shallots, rutabaga and shiitake mushrooms? A composed salad of assorted heirloom and cherry tomatoes with Michigan peaches and manicured fresh herbs garnished with Napoleons of icicle radishes layered with horseradish cheddar?
But it was not to be. Pass the bread, sister.
Oh, and this years Master of the Market is? Jennifer Gavin.