Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Reflections on the Top Chef weekend

Posted By on Tue, Jun 26, 2012 at 10:53 PM


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I am still reeling from the amazing weekend and Top Chef Competition. What presented itself as a wonderful opportunity to showcase some of the finest local chefs and food quickly turned into much more. As one of the emcees for the Top Chef competition, this writer had the privilege of witnessing all the excitement, behind the scenes and on stage, and even had the opportunity to be part of the fun.

The excitement began early as the threat of rain loomed, the stage did not want to cooperate and the set-up crew scrambled to begin things on time. Events truly began to turn crazy as the program was just moments from beginning when it was noticed that Tetherow Grill, one of the competing restaurants, did not have its chef present for the opening round battle.

“Joe, you’re going to have to go on,” was all that I remember hearing.

“Well, of course I’m going to have to go on, I am one of the emcees. Now, let’s do this,” was my response. But, I knew what was going on. I was going to have to compete in the opening battle. I had no knives, no equipment, and no help. In short, I wasn’t exactly ready to go up and participate in this battle against Mt. Bachelor.

But, I did it anyway. Tim Gatling, chef/owner of the Jackelope Grill loaned me a couple of knives. Caroline Crafard, a student from Cascade Culinary Institute, volunteered to assist me. I had what I needed to give this a shot, and it only took about five minutes to assemble.

The secret ingredient for that round was pork, from Pono Farms, and it was exquisite. We also had the pleasure of viewing a full, skin-on pig’s head. It was quite a sight. The crowd definitely found it entertaining.

In the interest of space, I won’t go into too many specifics, but we won that round. It was pretty exciting, and I know that Caroline, my sous chef for the round, was thrilled.

After this unexpected twist, the rest of the day went as we had all hoped. There was a hotly contested battle between Chow and Old Mill Brew Works using Jem Raw Chocolate as the secret ingredient. Chef Rudy Garcia of Brew Works, a crowd favorite for the weekend, battled without a sous chef and won narrowly.

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5 Fusion and 10 Barrel duked it out in Battle: Melon. A variety of delicious melons, brought in from Paradise Farms, a produce stand on Century Dr. provided some amazing options and flavors for the contestants.

In this battle 5 Fusion busted out an immersion circulator. This piece of equipment immerses in water and maintains a constant temperature and is used to sous vide. Sous vide is a method of cooking made popular a few years back on the TV version of Top Chef and involves sealing the food in plastic and immersing in the water. The result is a product that retains all of its flavor and nutrients and is incredibly tender. 5 Fusion used it to cook King Salmon and apricots.

5 Fusion triumphed in another excellent battle, as 10 Barrel demonstrated that it is not just the beer that packs them in at their Galveston St. pub.

And then the rain came. Rain was predicted for the entire day, and fortunately for all involved, it had stayed clear up until the end of the third battle of the day. The big question for event organizers, as water poured down from the sky, was should they postpone the final battle of the day, between Jackson’s Corner and Pine Tavern until the following morning?

Besides the chefs, and the weather, local food and producers were truly the focus of the event. More so than ever before at the Top Chef competition, local food was the star attraction. Central Oregon Locavore, led by Nicole Timm, gathered together an amazing array of fruit, vegetables, eggs, cheese, herbs, grains, and legumes for the battle, all originating from within 25 miles of the Top Chef stage. Also contributing their wares were Navidi’s, the Savory Spice Shop, Pono Farms, Jem Raw Chocolates, Van Duzer Wines, Justy’s Jellies, Deschutes Brewery, and so many more. It was the bounty of local products, which are available everyday to every one of us, which may have made me the proudest to be part of the Central Oregon experience.

The rain stopped. Right after St. Charles provided a little education for the crowd about sodium and salt in food, the sky cleared and we were on to round 4, and Jackson’s Corner versus Pine Tavern.

Good Earth Farms provided the secret ingredient, leafy greens, for the battle, but the chefs provided the excitement for the day’s final round. Kale, rainbow chard, arugula, spinach, and radish greens are some of the healthiest foods available anywhere, and these beautiful greens were treated with love and a lot of skill by the chefs. In what turned out to be the closest and arguably most exciting battle of the day, Jackson’s Corner pulled out the one point victory.

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Sunday provided more excitement for Top Chef crowds. Prizes galore, given out the entire weekend for correct answers to food trivia questions, were shared with the enthusiastic crowd.

My battle, once again with Caroline, a student from Cascade Culinary, against Chef Rudy from Old Mill Brew Works was another close one. With Deschutes Brewery providing the secret ingredient, we battled down to the wire, with Chef Rudy pulling out the two-point victory. No disappointment on my part, though, it was great fun! I certainly did not expect to compete, and it was fun to just have a chance. Besides, I am certain that Lisa was happy to not have to emcee alone. It is not easy, talking, and keeping it interesting.

5 Fusion and Jackson’s Corner went head-to-head in a battle of cheese. Pairing the current and past Restaurants of the Year, this battle also was a wonderful show of contrasting styles. In the end, though, it was 5 Fusion, who reigned in this battle.

The final provided a great deal of excitement for everyone. Old Mill Brew Works, with their booth just across from the stage and a crowd of fans, going up against 5 Fusion, who also had their share of support and home field provided some of the biggest fun and toughest judging of the day. The secret ingredient was seafood, and was a veritable cornucopia of oceanic delights.

Chef Rudy, ever excitable and ambitious, prepared four courses for the round. With a rowdy crowd behind him, this was a young man who would be tough to take down. But, 5 Fusion, with their methodical approach and solid game plan, would not be daunted. With preparations that included rice less risotto, made from sweet and red potatoes, 5 Fusion showed their own toughness.

When the final votes were tallied, 5 Fusion, Chef Joe Kim, and Sous Chef Bryce reigned supreme. The crowd cheered. We all celebrated a great weekend. It was an amazing event, and I was so happy to have been part of it. If you missed this year’s Top Chef, be certain to go next year. You will never look at food the same way again.

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