For the past four years I've been invited to judge Nicholas & Co's Ultimate Chef Competition - an Iron Chef-style cooking contest held at Nicholas annual food show. Big Budah is the host, and chats up the competing chefs who cook in their own kitchen setups in the middle of South Towne Expo Center. Yesterday was the 2011 competition. Co-judges Ted Scheffler of City Weekly and Joe Lambert from Squatters screwed our tastebuds to the sticking point and bravely faced 16 different pork dishes.
Every year, the food at this contest has gotten better and better, and yesterday's cooking was amazing. For one thing, the roster of competitors was pure Utah: Jodie Rogers from Deer Valley, Utah's ski resort acclaimed for its fine foodâ€”with, of course, the whole tight-knit DV team to cheer her on.
Phillip Yates and his team from Grand America, the heavyweight of SLC downtown hotels, and, up against these behemoths, Elio Scanu, chef-owner of independently owned Zucca Trattoria in South Ogden and Adrian Alvarado from Caffe Niche, a tiny neighborhood restaurant that has been making big waves.
Here are some of the highlights:
First, the secret ingredient was half a Ballard Farms pig, so the chefs really had to call on their mad knife skills and knowledge of porcine anatomy to break down the animal into usable parts, including removing the thick pork rind. They donâ€™t call footballs â€œpigskinsâ€ for nothing. The chefs are allowed to bring in equipment, and the Grand America team had brought in a bandsaw. Came in handy for sawing those bones.
The Grand America team came up with a theme for their menu = "global street food." They served first, and started with pork kofta, a take on the Middle Eastern snack. Ground pork and spices grilled and served with tzatziki, onions and tomatoes and pita, presented on a skewer rack. Fantastic.
Next came a pork tostado and to go with, a showstopping margarita served in a carved ice goblet. (That's it, above.) Korean ribs with a kimchee springroll came next, and finally, the most amazing corndog I've ever tasted, made with ground pork sausage instead of a weiner. Yes, Chef had brought the grinder attachment for his Kitchenaid.
Obviously, these were contenders.
Elio Scanu's food relied more on nuanced layered flavors - his pork filled Venezuelan tamalito was made with masa and pork broth garnished with cilantro microgreens and avodcado. His peak was a seemingly simple plate of polenta and mascarpone with a pork ragout - a breathtaking dish that had all the culinary wisdom of the ages in each amazing bite.
Standouts from Caffe Niche were the little skewers of grilled pork tenderloin and grapes and a gorgeous cinnamon-scented dried fig and cranberry-stuffed pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon andserved with quinoa and calabacitas.
Deer Valley took an elegant approach - a surf 'n' turf plate with pork tenderloin and shrimp in a citrus buerre blanc with beets and a garnish of amaranth, and a St. Andre and truffle-enhanced pork loin with sweet potato.
In the end, Zucca Trattoria beat out Grand America by half a point, so Chef Elio Scanu will be Utah's ChefDance host in 2012.
Meanwhile, I'd make visiting each of these restaurants a high priority. We have a lot of amazing culinary talent in this town. Oh, and the marketing idea: how cool would it be if these restaurants ran a two-week special, recreating their competition menu? Then the public could try each one, and see whether they agree with the judges...Ed Carr? Can you make this happen?