By Jenny Neyman
Needing to make a quick meal with whatever is on hand isn’t that unusual a premise for home cooks. It can go surprisingly well — like discovering that pulverized Doritos makes a great breading — or turn into something best labeled as “surprise.”
But the circumstances Saturday were a bit more stressful. For one thing, the ingredients were odder than most cupboards offer, including puffed rice for an entrée dish and creamed corn to use in dessert. The consequences for getting food to the table late weren’t just whines from the family about being hungry. And the diners were far more judgmental than even the pickiest 6-year-old. But the rewards for success — delicious, creative, well-executed dishes presented elegantly and on time — were much greater than a stack of scraped-clean dishes.
There was foodie fame and fortune at stake, as this was the Clash of the Culinary Kings cooking competition, held Saturday at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai.
Fortune for the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, as the event was a fundraiser for the organization. And fame for the winning chef — temporarily, at least. The winner’s trophy, created by Metal Magic, will never spoil, but the event was such a success that the bragging rights might expire with a second competition next year.
“It was a great event. We’re super happy to be involved in this, and we’re looking forward to next year. We’ll have to have a rematch,” said Steve England, of Kenai Catering.
Several local restaurants, catering companies and grocery stores participated in a people’s choice hors d’oeuvres challenge, where event attendees voted for which bites they liked the best. It was a close call, with Porterhouse Grill’s bacon-topped stuffed mushroom crostini winning by just one vote over a smoked duck a l’orange on a wonton, topped with Asian slaw and cherry demi glace from Heavenly Delights.
“We’ve tried everything, and all of it is very good. It’s like this melody of taste, and it’s great. (And) I haven’t gotten to try the cupcakes yet,” said Pam Satathite.
Penny Hallmark, of Heavenly Delights, said that she and Robin BeDunnah wanted to try something out-of-the ordinary in the spirit of the first-time event.
“What we thought was something just out of the box, something a little unusual that we don’t get every day, and is good, and a lot of things that people have never tried,” Hallmark said. “I think we feel good about it. It’s fun. I think people are enjoying just the unusualness of it.”
Then came the main event, which was unusual in that the live cooking competition is first for this area. It’s an idea taken from various cooking shows, particularly “Chopped” on the Food Network.
“Some of us watch television shows of cooking contests occasionally and we wanted to bring a little bit different entertainment to the peninsula,” said Linda Swarner, executive director of the food bank.
Three local chefs created dishes from surprise ingredients revealed on the spot. They had to use everything presented in the mystery box and serve the dish to judges on time, or be disqualified. One chef was eliminated after the 45-minute entrée round, and one winner was chosen after the 30-minute dessert round.
Daniel Haag, a chef at The Flats Bistro, said his head chef and the restaurant’s owner put him up to competing, but that he felt good about the format.
“I like taking random things and throwing them together to make them delicious, so it’s basically just me playing around with random combinations of things. And I also love the Food Network, so ‘Chopped’ and I have had a long-term relationship,” he said.
From watching the show, his strategy was to keep calm and cook quickly but efficiently, not frantically.
“Basically just control your stress level, that’s what I’ve always seen from it,” he said. “And then just having fun — that’s a main thing. If you get too stressed out then your love won’t go into the food, and that’s what really creates good food, I think, is caring about what you’re making.”
Haag, England and Paul Warner of AKSupperClub manned their cooking stations, outfitted with loaner electric stove/ovens and cooking equipment from Spenard Builders Supply and Whirlpool, in front of the crowd. A video camera was also positioned so close-up cooking action could be displayed on a large screen overhead.
The chefs were given their first mystery boxes that contained the ingredients they’d have to use for the entrées, supplemented with whatever spices and other staples they found in the provided pantry, which they also weren’t allowed to see before their cooking time began.
With a three-two-one countdown the chefs faced their fate — a fillet of rockfish, a sack of mushrooms, dry couscous, a whole pineapple and a package of puffed rice. The rockfish and mushrooms elicited welcome relief, and the puffed rice raised some eyebrows. For Haag, though, the couscous was the clunker.
“I’m not a couscous fan in general. It doesn’t taste like anything, but I think I incorporated enough flavor into it to really carry the dish through,” he said.
Pineapple sauces were set to bubble on the burners. Fish was seasoned and/or breaded, in some cases seared on the stovetop, or else baked to flaky perfection in the oven. Additional ingredients were incorporated — red potatoes, citrus, peppers, soy sauce, wine and, of course, butter.
Haag’s plan was to embrace whatever the mystery box gave him, rather than bury ingredients under other items from the pantry. That’s part of the fun of the challenge, he reasoned.
“I kind of just let it come to me. I’m pretty inspired by ingredients. ‘OK, what can I do to let this ingredient shine?’ And not try to mask it. If they put Cheetos in my basket, I’m not going to try to hide the Cheetos,” he said.
After 43 minutes of furious cooking and about two minutes of frantic plating, it was time for the judges to get to work deciding which two would go on to the dessert round. Cat Horn, a server at Mykel’s for 22 years and cook at the hospital for 16 years, Paul Reid, now-retired owner of the Sagaya markets in Anchorage, and Allie Ostrander, a senior at Kenai Central High School distinguished for her record-breaking running career, but also dedicated to her foodie tendencies, had their work cut out for them. The three tallied their scores in three categories — taste, presentation and creativity — but still had to negotiate out the results because the scores were too close to easily call.
For Hall, creativity and taste were the biggest factors.
“I’m just looking for something fun that somebody did with something you’d never think of,” she said. “Just, whether you end up quite surprised that you found something you really loved out of certain ingredients. It’s amazing what people can come up with that you wouldn’t think to put in.”
After a difficult deliberation, Warner was sent back to the audience and England and Haag returned to their stations to contend with the dessert ingredients — a tube of crescent roll dough, Craisins, cream cheese, quail eggs and a can of creamed corn.
Swarner shared the inspiration/blame for the curveball that was the creamed corn.
“That was a committee,” she said. “The committee chose the ingredients that were in the mystery box.”
The corn, though, wasn’t the biggest challenge. It was the dough. Thirty minutes is a stretch for conception, preparation and baking time. Haag ended up dividing up the dough and frying smaller pieces, which he then layered with creams and sauces.
“In the beginning I was going to do a turnover, but I decided the baking process was going to take too long so that’s when I decided to do like an orange, vanilla almost doughnut style. You can never go wrong with doughnuts,” he said.
England doubled down on the dough cooking as a full, filled pastry. The flavor was there, but the consistency wasn’t quite and Haag was declared the winner.
“That pastry. That pastry that I put in the oven when I knew… .” England said. “Anyways, that’s a whole other story. Congratulations to Daniel. He pulled off a great one.”
England said he knew the dessert round would be a challenge.
“The entrée is definitely more natural for me. My training is in the hot side of the kitchen, and in the last 20 years that my wife and I have worked together she has done all of our pastries, so I’ve had no reason to jump into the pastry side of it,” he said. “She said, ‘You’re going to do OK for the first round, the second round maybe not.’”
Haag, who has pastry chef experience, was the opposite.
“I knew if I got through entrée that I’d be pretty confident with desserts,” he said “It was a lot of fun. I’m really, really happy I got to come away with a win. It’s really humbling,” he said.
And filling for a good cause, as well.
“Long story short it was more about the food bank and having everybody have some fun and support the food bank,” England said.
Swarner said she thinks the event will be a recurring one.
“I’m very happy with all the participation. We live in a very giving community,” she said.
Attendees seemed to enjoy the format, as well.
“I love living in Alaska and I love that we go out of our way, especially in the Kenai Peninsula, to make fundraising really fun events. Because in the wintertime there’s just not a whole lot to do here, so I love that they come up with these creative ways,” Horn said. “I think it’s great that our community is so good about it, and they just came up with another good idea.”