The Culinary Challenge at West Chester Recreation‘s Annual Chester County Restaurant Festival is always a huge attraction. It’s the local “Chopped,” if you will, where four chefs compete through three rounds (surprise ingredients included), resulting in one winner. The last man or woman standing is deemed Best Chef in Chester County. That title has been owned by one man for the past two years. Chef Jonathan Amann of Amani’s BYOB in Downingtown proved victorious in both 2011 and 2010. He’s back on the chopping block this year with the potential to become an honorary judge should he take first place once more.
Forever big fans of Amani’s fresh, farm to table cuisine, The Town Dish couldn’t wait to chit chat with Jon about the potential honor looming in the near future.
You are returning this year to defend your title of Best Chef from the 2011 and 2010 competitions. Are you feeling any extra pressure because of this or staying cool, calm and collective, just excited to be back?
Jon: The feeling is the same as every year in the past, I feel nervous about the desire to win, but I’m also excited to compete with the other chefs.
If you win this year, you will earn your spot as an honorary judge. Would you rather keep competing or would you like to finally be on the other end of things?
Jon: I’ve enjoyed competing these last three years, so I would miss that, but it would be fun to get to taste food from other chefs. Amani’s and our son, Joey, keep me so busy that I don’t get the chance to go out to eat very often. Earning a spot as a judge would be a great way for me to see what other chefs have to offer.
Can you explain to us why you believe you won last year and how you fared with the surprise ingredients?
Jon: I think that participating the year before gave me an advantage because I had a better understanding of the scoring and the time constraints. Last year’s secret ingredient was wine from local wine makers. I have a relationship with the wine makers at Black Walnut, so I gravitated towards their wine since I was familiar with it.
Do you know who your competition is this year? If so, who are you most intimidated by? If you don’t know, name a restaurant/chef you’d like to go up against and why.
Jon: I don’t know who the rest of the competition is. It’s hard for me to say who I’d like to go up against since I never get the chance to go to other local restaurants. The last place that I went to was the Station Taproom in Downingtown and had a great meal, so it’d be fun to go up against their chef. I think that the menu at Birchrun Store Cafe looks amazing and I’m excited to finally get to eat there for the first time in September.
Have you thought at all about what you’re going to make this year because it’s an extension of a dish you already do or will you whip something new up as the event nears?
Jon: I’m not sure what the required ingredients are this year and that will determine what dishes I make. In the years past, I was so busy preparing all of the food for the Chester County Restaurant Festival that I didn’t have time to prepare my dishes for the competition ahead of time. The first time that I made the dishes were for the judges during the competition, so I’m sure that I’ll choose a dish that I haven’t done before again this year.
You are huge on using the most local, farm fresh ingredients. Which local vendors do you think will be supplying some of your ingredients for this year’s contest?
Jon: I’d like to see some cheeses from Amazing Acres in Elverson since they have such great goat cheese. Vollmecke Orchards grows their own produce, so I would hope to see some of their ingredients there. I enjoyed working with the products from The Chili Spot last year, so I wouldn’t mind seeing their products again. Why Not Farms has Texas Longhorn beef that would be a good product to work with.
What aspects of your cooking experience do you think gives you an advantage in this competition?
Jon: I am used to working with local products for Amani’s, so I feel that that gives me an advantage in coming up with which dishes that I prepare. Having been in the restaurant business for the last 20 years, thinking on your feet is something that I’ve learned to do, so that helps during the competition when something doesn’t work the way that you thought it would.
Lastly, if you could explain the reason for your success in one word, what would that word be?