The contest: "Champion de Cuisine Competition," billed as "the most intense and extensive culinary competition in the history of Colorado."
The arena: The Hospitality Expo at The Broadmoor hotel's Colorado Hall.
The contestants: The best and brightest of Colorado Springs' chefs, including Chip Johnson (Briarhurst), Brent Beavers (Sencha), John Broening (Primativo), Paul Jensen and Michael Kline (The Broadmoor), Christian Bowie (Villa at Palmer Lake), James Africano (The Warehouse) and Christine Adrian (La Petite Maison).
Live chefs, competing to perfect their dishes within a strict time limit, using a secret theme ingredient ... shades of Iron Chef, Batman -- I've died and gone to heaven!
On Monday, March 4, eight chefs lined up ready to fire the shots for the first skirmish. It was to be a three-round elimination tournament. Each chef, accompanied by only one sous-chef, had a mere 90 minutes to create three to four dishes showcasing beef tenderloin. The beef flew fast and furious, with dishes like Hazelnut Pepper Steak, Mushroom Broth with Seared Beef Gallette and Pernot-Poached Portobello, and Foie Gras and Beef Wonton.
That's what we poor slobs in the audience had to look at, and smell, for the first two hours. It was exquisite torture. On the other hand, the poor judges had to eat (or at least sample) 25 dishes in the first round, 13 dishes in the Fennel Fusillade, and the final six presentations in round three: Black Truffles. The panel of judges included Victor Matthews (chief judge and organizer), Teresa Farney of The Gazette, Sigi Krauss ("local culinary icon") and Jacque Hamilton, Executive Chef at the Olympic Training Center. It was a long day, and their taste buds were ridden hard and put away wet.
The war began with an introduction of the combatants, in no particular order, we were assured. It was surely coincidence that the chefs with the tall toques, neatly trimmed hair and starched, brilliantly white uniforms were all on one end, while the four pony-tailed chefs, in ball caps and bandanas, were at the other end.
From a chef's point of view, the day started with some obstacles. Not everyone was clear on the fact they were expected to provide all of their own equipment, including pots and pans, knives, tongs, and other basic equipment. This left me wondering what the smaller restaurants were left with for serving their lunch crowds. And the basic pantry, an ideal (on paper) that any cook would love, was not fully stocked when the starting gun went off, lacking such things as flour, sugar, onions and eggs for the first 20 minutes. Toward the end of the day, one chef was heard to remark, "Well, let's have a contest where we all get the exact same ingredients, then see who can be most creative."
Remember those four ponytailed chefs? They were eliminated in the first round, with John Broening, Paul Jensen, Michael Kline and Chip Johnson moving on to match wits over large, smooth bulbs of fennel. From the audience, this is where the creativity really sparkled in the dishes. Chip Johnson put out the two best-looking dishes of the day, a red potato, fennel and asparagus salad, with the asparagus standing like a still life in a hollowed fennel bulb, and a salmon and fennel salad with three caviars and celery root. It looked like a beautiful mosaic vase holding delicate fronds of fennel leaves, offset by the perfect oval of caviar with not a single egg out of place, served on piece of gray slate. We mere mortals oohed and aahed.
By the middle of round two, an idea occurred to me that would improve this contest immensely for the spectators: We need some color commentary. I had really hoped that Victor Matthews, with his extensive experience in cooking and competing, would range among the chefs and give us some comments. I understand that he didn't want to tip off one chef about what another was preparing, but once the round started and the chefs put their heads into their work, I don't think they were listening to Victor. The rest of us, however, were, and we would have liked to hear, "Whoa, we've got a steamer going here, and are those shrimp I see? Daikon radish is a hot property today, and Chip Johnson just brought out chamomile buds." Otherwise we were just standing on the other side of the velvet rope, unable to really see the action, waiting for the plates to arrive at the presentation table.
The final showdown: Whose cuisine would reign supreme? John Broening and Paul Jensen faced off over the last secret ingredient, the ultimate luxury -- truffles. Each man had fresh black truffles, truffle oil, truffle honey and truffle puree. As you would expect, the dishes looked divine. John led with house-made pappardelle with tomato, shrimp, caper and truffle sauce, port caramelized Belgian endive with walnuts, blue cheese and truffle honey, and seared tuna, spinach, truffled mashed potatoes with truffle sauce. He was edged out by Paul's white truffle oil and Camembert risotto with deep-fried black truffle and shrimp ravioli with foie gras emulsification sauce (beautiful dish, terrible name), foie gras and black truffle napoleon with grilled apples and a Calvados and truffle reduction sauce, and truffle ice cream with truffle honey-macerated strawberries and a deep fried crepe.
This was a grand endeavor, and I feel certain the bumps will be smoothed out for next year's competition. I'll be there, in orthopedic shoes, waiting to see what our great culinary artists will come up with next.