As if it were my dream dinner party: rustic, vibrant dishes starring jaw-dropping duck and darling pork tenderloin enamored me, one-by-one. Plates conceptualized and created by a heavy-hitting lineup of Philadelphia suburban chefs, each unveiled fine-tuned, unique approaches to New American cuisine.
However, unlike in my fantasy land (where I would expect this feast to unfold at a communal table dead-center in a local farm) I was not tasting the remarkable dishes in a country-like setting, but instead, on courthouse stairs in downtown West Chester.
You see, when you are in the heat of an award-winning taste-off, your taste-buds spin you in a delightful trance, and dream world landscapes tend to creep up. I am sure my fellow cook-off judging comrades would agree, as I — alongside Kim Knipe, Registered Dietician of Chester County Hospital and Jordan DeMaio, GM of Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant of West Chester — helped award the “Best Chef of Chester County” in West Chester Recreation’s Annual Culinary Challenge, which unfolded during the yearly Restaurant Festival on Sept. 16th.
This year’s chef roster was fierce, featuring four culinary kings from our county’s local chefscape, each reigning from a different pocket of Chester County. From Chef Andrew Deery of Majolica in Phoenixville, to Chef Phil Dersch of General Warren Inne in Malvern, to Chef Tim Smith of Twelves Cafe & Grill in West Grove to Chef Jonathan Amann of Amani’s BYOB in Downingtown, this year’s competition was outfitted with rock stars. 2012’s cook-off was particularly special for Chef Jon, who has reigned as the “Best Chef of Chester County” for two years running, with hopes to continue wearing his crown for his third, last year (after three years of competing and winning, a chef is granted “judge” status for following year’s cook-off).
You’d expect the chefs to be bundles of nervous energy, being that the annual competition is the biggest culinary battle of the county. But on the contrary, all appeared calm and casual; shaking hands and sharing industry chit-chat with Town Dish founder and cook-off emcee Mary Bigham, ready to strut their skill sets for the ever-expanding audience and judges.
As the fourfold lineup of culinary crusaders battled it out, the objective was simple: craft three courses — an appetizer, entree and dessert — each in thirty minutes’ time, and each of which must include distinct mandatory ingredients. Of course, heavy consideration had to be made to the “secret” ingredients (not to be confused with those mandatory) which appeared as a surprise on-site at the beginning of the challenge, and awarded extra points for inclusion in a given round. This year’s bombshell selections were sure to get the creative juices flowing, as J&J’s Kettle Corn, and Nuts About West Chester’s cinnamon-sugar almonds dropped in to waylay the chefs on their path to glory.
First Course: Craft an Appetizer Featuring Doc Magrogan’s Oysters
A mixed assortment of Doc’s raw, shucked oysters arrived to the left of the cooking platform, immediately ready for the chefs to pop ‘em into award-winning small plates. Chef Tim perfected the art of crush-worthy fried oysters — the two panko-breaded beauties arrived to our table top first, paired with a petite kettle corn-crusted scallop atop microgreens.
Soon, Chef Andrew introduced his enchanting fall salad speckled with the season’s best bounty (mushrooms, greens, cherry tomatoes, etc.) and crowned with a vibrant hen egg. The raw oyster came into play within his vinaigrette, which together with the various textures and flavors of the starter’s ingredients prompted judge Kim to say it was as if there was “a little party” in her mouth.
Like Tim, Chef Phil was also partial to serving oysters with scallops, but his preparation and execution took place entirely on the opposite end of the spectrum. A duck fat-seared scallop stood in lone perfection on the left, while a raw oyster awaiting its duck crackling mignonette graced the right of the plate. (For the record: I still dream of that meaty oyster accompaniment — and probably will forever.)
Chef Jon finished off round one in utmost poise and his typical eye-catching fashion, presenting an Asian-inspired platter with impeccably-placed components — from the tempura-battered oyster snug inside a maki roll, to the side of soy-pickled mushrooms, and highlighted with fermented, ablaze chili aioli and miso ponzu sauce.
Second Course: Craft an Entree Featuring Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant’s Vienna Red Lager
With two rounds left to go (as in, no time to waste), West Chester Recreation staffers introduced the next must-use ingredient to the cook-off: growlers of Iron Hill’s Vienna Red Lager. With Iron Hill West Chester’s GM on the judging panel, this was the round he was most enthusiastic about, especially since he constantly encounters beer-infused dishes, hoping to taste a fresh approach to beer-steeped grub.
A Chanterelle mushroom and grain mustard-stuffed pork tenderloin kick-started round two, courtesy of Chef Jon. As the prettiest stuffed pork I have yet laid these ever-hungry eyes on, the complex entree came with a cozy dose of malt, as the dish propelled me into oblivion with its touch of Red Lager reduction. Of course, it didn’t end there. It just so happens, Jon makes the best Brussels sprouts around (as confirmed in last year’s competition), so he reintroduced a beer-braised batch aside a hearty scoop of sweet corn and dried cranberry millet grits.
Chef Tim took the spotlight next, delivering a glorious entree of beer-braised duck — marrying flavors of Vienna Red with the savory juices of the meat. A side of Kettle corn-infused polenta wowed our taste buds as we judges received an impressive glimpse of his mad scientist-like bravura.Chef Andrew stimulated our senses with an enticing mini pot of seafood stew, and offered us a respite from hearty meat dishes thus far.
Since we have considered Andrew a culinary artist in the Phoenixville scene, we knew his incorporation of the “secret” kettle corn would be captivating. Here, he coated the scallops in it, offering an opposing sweetness when coupled with the spicy fish oil and beer broth.
Chef Phil finished off the course by furthering his quest to plant duck on a pedestal, illustrating a simple, elegant entree articulated with beer-braised red onions, green beans and fingerlings (also cooked in duck fat — which is inherently a simple, beautiful thing).
The verdict on the above by the Iron Hill expert? “I was very impressed at how quickly and how effectively the chefs incorporated the Vienna Red Lager into their entrees. It was interesting to see the 4 different variations on how the beer was used by the 4 different chefs. It showed that beer has its place in creative cooking,” shared Jordan.
Third Course: Craft a Dessert Featuring Highland Orchards’ Apple Cider Doughnuts
Fall’s local, cult classic — Highland Orchards’ apple cider doughnuts — became the shining stars of course three, with each kitchen virtuoso assigned to incorporate the cider-soaked sweets into their own original dessert. Taking an already-established, addicting sweet treat and revamping it to a brand-new meal-ender seems easy as pie, right? Well, there was nothing simple about what these chefs unveiled as their final course.
I will forever-remember Chef Andrew’s goat cheese cheesecake. The dainty, darling dessert started with an apple cider doughnut and cinnamon almond crust, upon which was found Shellback Hollow Farm Chevre. His finishing touches of precisely-placed micro herbs (tangerine, celery root, marigold included) elevated the sugary sphere to the Nth level, with each accent’s incorporation perfectly conceived.Chef Phil stepped up next, making the bold move of leaving the doughnuts as the “beef” of his dish. Instead, he chose to concentrate on building up the classic with a rich custard (which incorporated duck fat again — hallelujah!).
Chef Jon, a man who likes to suggest he isn’t very handy at crafting desserts, blew us away with his caramel apple napoleon — even before we took a bite. It was a beauty, a precise puzzle sculpted on an apple cider doughnut crust with chunks of caramelized apples chiseled on top and finished with Italian Meringue (and yes, live blow-torch action occurred on stage). Wait, there’s more — the pastry chef-in-training’s dessert came plated with an apple bourbon reduction. Will this dessert now be part of my utopian fantasy? But of course.
Our impending sugar coma was inching nearer, but not before we tackled the final dish of the cook-off — Chef Tim’s inventive crepe poured and spread from a magical doughnut and kettle corn batter. Say what? Truly, this creative genius embraced the mission of this challenge, making full, innovative use of both the mandatory and secret ingredients. For the record: I may now eat only crepes if they continue to be crafted in this fashion.
Verdict’s In — Best Chef Crowned
But, after all dishes were devoured, the real reason for us gourmands grazing through the Sunday afternoon was to critique and crown the next, best chef of Chester County.
“It’s so difficult to rate one extremely talented chef’s work over another, especially when their styles were so different,” shared fellow judge Kim Knipe. “We experienced a wide range of well-prepared foods from salad with an oyster vinaigrette, to stuffed pork, to cheesecake with a cider donut crust. Some were beautifully presented, some were rich with layers of flavor. In the end, the winner showcased his versatility using the mandatory and secret ingredients to gain the upper hand in the competition.”
With all votes in and judges’ tallies totaled, only one local, culinary rock star could bear the “Best Chef” title for the following year. 2012’s “Best Chef” honor was bestowed to the well-deserving Chef Jon — a modest, master chef who is now the Culinary Cook-off champ for the third year in a row! Runner-up Chef Tim is worthy of his placement too, for his impressive, creative approach to the competition, and to third and fourth place chefs — Chef Andrew and Chef Phil — we were thoroughly charmed by your concoctions, and we’ll be dining in-house at your respectable restaurants very soon.
But in one judge’s opinion (Kim’s), “it’s Chester County that wins for having such enormous culinary talent in our borders!” And on that final note: To Chef Jon, Chef Tim, Chef Andrew and Chef Phil — we are thrilled that you have selected Chester County to entice our taste buds night after night. Bravo to each of you — your skill sets are some of the best that our county has seen yet!