How to win a cookoff contest

Ilium Enchanted City

Winning dish in the 2016 Emerald City Trial by Combat cookoff

Last Saturday I was a judge in the Trial By Combat cookoff, part of the Enchanted City steampunk festival in Troy, NY. The contest was sponsored by Yelp and organized by Daniel B of FUSSYlittleBLOG. We went shopping in the local farmers market and gave each of the five contestants a bag of goods they could use as they wished to create a dish in 45 minutes. The rules were somewhat looser than Iron Chef competitions: the chefs didn’t have to use all the ingredients (though they had to use at least some of them) and could add their own products.

First place went to Darla Ortega of Ilium Café, for the second year in a row, serving up a lesson in how to win a cookoff contest. Like Arrogate in the Travers Stakes the same day, she pulled away at the start and never looked back. Her dish took a toasted brioche from Bountiful Bakers, topped it with a chunk of funky Tobagi cheese from Cricket Creek which had been wrapped in uncured Mariaville bacon, then added her own seared scallop with a sprig of fried sage from the farmers market. The bacon was cooked off in a sauté pan till it almost disappeared and the cheese turned into a glorious gooey mess which was transferred to the bread at the perfect time.

On the side was Israeli couscous which had been cooked with some of the other supplied ingredients (notably golden cherry tomatoes) and a spoonful of micro greens in a tart dressing, and the dish was completed with a splash of maple raspberry jam from Jamtastic of Rupert, VT. The judges agreed the couscous was the only weakness of the dish. It didn’t add much since we already had a starch in the brioche, and we would have liked more of the micro greens to offset the fatty cheese and bacon.

Darla Ortega and son

Ilium chef Darla Ortega explains her presentation, with her son/kitchen assistant at her side

Two of the other contestants had pretty good entries, but there was really no question about the outcome. Darla Ortega followed some rules that I think are key to consistent success in an event like this.

  1. Make the flavors come together. Everything worked—the unctuous protein, the sweet jam, the tart greens, and the rich scallop as a platform they could play off against. By comparison, most of the other contestants gave us separate tastes in different parts of the plate.

  2. Do something dramatic. The chef brought big, beautiful scallops from her restaurant kitchen knowing this expensive, somewhat exotic ingredient might go well with the products supplied, and it worked. (Not everybody likes shellfish and some are allergic, but judges in a food competition agree to eat what is put before them so this is less risky than it appears.) Seem like cheating? Our bag of foodstuffs included a bunch of fresh shiitakes which could have been turned into an equally dramatic centerpiece and nobody took that bait.

  3. Presentation is a big deal. It was one of our three criteria (the other two were creativity and taste), and Ortega got top marks, but presentation is more about serving a pretty plate. Plating is the first impression your diner gets and it gives them clues about the different ingredients and how they are to be attacked with knife and fork. It also shows you care enough to pay attention to the details.

Tellingly, Ortega was the only chef who’d brought her own cutlery and napkins, which subsequently were borrowed [with no penalty assessed] by the other chefs.

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