High noon on Super Bowl Sunday. The setting: the Rocky Mountain Ballroom in the Broadmoor West. The battle: no pigskin allowed. This was the cook-off to determine who would challenge last year's top four chefs at the Hospitality Expo's grand cooking showdown.
Our challengers: Jay Gust of the Ritz Grill; Jeff Koch from Highlands Ranch Golf Club; Don Louie from Aikan/Golden Dragon; Robert Meitzer from Assignments Restaurant; Michael Long from Opus; Rick Aco and Mickey Harden from the Broadmoor, Charles McKee up from the Holiday Inn Pueblo; and Henk Drakulich of Marigold's.
The judges for the day: Victor Mathews of Black Bear fame (who also organizes these events), and Dave Driscoll, The Broadmoor's food and beverage director. The challenge: to create the single best dish from the contents of a mystery basket in 45 minutes.
All contestants brought their own equipment, had the exact same mystery basket, and had access to a "pantry" table in the middle of the hall. The pantry table held several dry spices and seasonings, from black peppercorns to fennel seed, dried parsley, Cajun spice and granulated garlic. There were also containers of sugar, salt, cornstarch, red and white wine, water, olive oil, sesame oil, balsamic and red wine vinegars, and soy sauce. The pantry table was lined with small plastic cups, so the chefs could easily take what they needed back to their work space.
Forty-five minutes is not a long time to prepare a dish, especially when the ingredients are only revealed when the starting gun goes off. Each chef opened his tub to reveal a fresh fennel bulb, a pound of Plugra butter, two stalks of celery, two carrots, six cloves of garlic, two tomatoes, two onions, three oranges, two Golden Valley potatoes, a pound of linguine, four small packets of honey, a head of romaine lettuce and a duck. They were allowed to have water boiling before the battle commenced, but were not allowed to bring any additional ingredients from their own kitchens. They were instructed that dishes would be graded on a scale of 1 to 20 for taste, 1 to 10 for presentation and 1 to 10 for creativity, which included using as many of the box ingredients as possible.
Within minutes, the scent and sizzle of sauting duck filled the room as the chefs began to ply their trade. Since there were few spectators present and the chefs were all at floor level, it was easy to walk around and watch the chefs work. Harden and Drakulich exchanged banter and some equipment. Gust was 15 minutes into the battle before he opened his duck, while others had begun boning, sectioning and frenching immediately in an awesome display of knife work. Some of the chefs worked in silent concentration, while others chatted with passersby.
What these men were all working toward was a chance to compete in the big chef's competition that will be held at the Hospitality Expo on March 3 at the Broadmoor, in the Rocky Mountain Ballroom. The top four today would earn the honor of challenging last year's top four: Chip Johnson of the Briarhurst, Michael Kline of the Hearthstone Inn, James Africano of The Warehouse, and John Broening, formerly of Primativo.
The March contest will be Iron Chefstyle, with all eight chefs preparing up to three dishes utilizing a mystery ingredient. The top four of that round will compete with another mystery ingredient. The top two will compete with yet a third mystery ingredient, and the 2003 winner will then challenge the 2002 winner, Paul Jensen. With four one-hour rounds, the winner should be proud of his stamina as well as his cooking skills.
As I wandered around the hall, I paused to ask Don Louie how he was preparing his duck. He told me the marinade was a combination of balsamic vinegar, cinnamon, sugar, salt, pepper and orange juice. I watched Michael Long scoop parboiled carrots and potatoes into a saut pan. Mickey Harden, at one point, had a flaming saut pan that would do any Iron Chef proud.
At the larger competition at the Hospitality Expo, neither press nor other observers get to taste the results. But at this cook-off, with only two judges and perhaps a dozen observers, most of us got to sample at least a taste of what these chefs produced. Since duck is one of my favorites, I was in heaven.
One of the dishes had the tenderest inner romaine leaves as cups, holding crisply fried cracklings and liver from the duck, plus some tiny cubes of fennel and the other vegetables. It was so delicious I was tempted to grab the whole plate and run from the hall. Chef Louie's duck was beautiful and delicious, sauted to a perfect golden brown and topped with a bit of finely grated orange zest for contrast.
The grand winners of the day: Robert Meitzer, Michael Long, Rick Aco and Henk Drakulich. Jay Gust was named alternate, and will be asked to step in if any of these four or the original four cannot compete. If you want to see these chefs in action, mark March 3 on your calendar, and stay tuned to the Independent for complete details in upcoming weeks.