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I May Never Eat Again 

The excruciating pleasure of judging a cooking competition

There is an annual cooking contest here in the Springs called "Champion de Cuisine," held in the Rocky Mountain Ballroom at the Broadmoor. It's like an Iron Chef cook-off with secret theme ingredients, time limits and several elimination rounds. This year I was asked to be the press judge, and that's why I may never eat again.

Multiply the way you feel when you've eaten too much Thanksgiving dinner by two and you'll have some idea how I felt by the end of the day on March 3. "How bad could it be?" I thought beforehand. "You take one or two bites of every dish."

The first round had seven contestants, each preparing three dishes using flatiron beef (a cut sort of like flank steak) which translated to 21 beef dishes, featuring the stellar efforts of James Africano (The Warehouse), Rick Aco (Charles Court), Michael Long (Opus, Denver), Henk Drakulich (Marigold Cafe), Jason Gust (Ritz Grill), Robert Meitzer (Assignments, Denver), and Michael Kline (Hearthstone Inn). Second round saw four chefs, each using a whole parrotfish to make three dishes, for a total of 12 more dishes. Third round, two chefs, six dishes using foie gras. The final round, this year's winner vs. last year's winner (Paul Jenson, the El Paso Club), featured six dishes all containing chocolate. All told, we tasted 45 dishes in five and a half hours.

The beef round produced several salads and two curried soups that were both fabulous and nothing alike. We had lots and lots of roulades. The things people will stuff into beef will amaze you -- brie, almonds and peaches, asparagus, more brie, Andouille sausage, foie gras, brie and mushrooms, spinach, bell peppers and heirloom tomatoes. We tasted beef curried, pounded and fried, rubbed with chili paste, and wrapped around asparagus in a sort of giant maki roll.

Aco, Gust, Kline and Long advanced to the second round. The fish provided a rich palate for all. We saw only one sushi (yea!), and a couple of different stews, one with an aioli (garlic mayonnaise) that was divine. We tasted parrotfish crusted with cornmeal, pan-fried and served with a tasso (ham) cream sauce; tempura-fried and served on a tomato salad; another roulade, with mango and pepper mlange; and smoked, with greens and a bacon and grenadine dressing (we were licking the dressing off the plate). The funkiest dish was butter-poached parrotfish with crab gratine and sweet hot walnuts. The all-time best dish of the day, which sounds weird but tasted so good I couldn't believe it, was banana waffles, topped with a warm banana chutney, topped with macadamia and coconut-crusted parrot fish. The plate had to be taken away from the four judges to preserve our appetites for the final rounds.

Charles Court (Aco) took on The Ritz Grill (Gust) in Battle foie gras, the penultimate round. I learned that in France it's traditionally goose liver, but here it's usually duck liver, since geese are more fragile animals to raise. (Don't see what the big deal is. Personally, I'd rather have a good chopped chicken liver any day.) But there was a rib-eye stuffed with sausage and foie gras that was OK, and thinly sliced, seared foie gras coated with semolina and Cajun spices was crispy and appetizing. Surprisingly good was a foie gras-stuffed portobello mushroom over steamed Napa cabbage, fresh tasting and not as heavy as the key ingredient usually suggests. The over-the-top dish of the day was a gilded and truffle-coated foie gras lollipop -- a ball of foie gras the size of a crabapple (somehow creamy and fluffy, like a candy truffle), rolled in finely minced black truffle (the fungus this time, not the candy), and topped with edible gold leaf. It actually tasted pretty good, although the chef at the table (Black Bear's Victor Mathews) said as an appetizer, it would probably cost $65 per serving. That didn't make me like it any more.

The final round was chocolate. Jason Gust, an alternate this year, faced off against last year's champion Paul Jenson. The first chocolate soup was warm, with little teeny dumplings that consisted of dried cranberries inside a nugget of Roquefort cheese, then rolled again in coconut. I thought I would hate it, but it was divine. The other was a thinner, chilled ginger chocolate soup, very refreshing. There was an excellent chocolate fondue and a pork loin with mole sauce. Probably the most exotic dish was homemade chocolate pasta with curry-seared scallops and coconut Alfredo. The seemingly disparate flavors coalesced in the mouth, melding into a triumphant whole. A mediocre chocolate mousse followed with strawberries that had been heated in truffle oil (we think). Whoever does that to a strawberry ought to be arrested.

Paul Jenson took home the big trophy again, but the crowd and the other chefs present were all thrilled with Gust, the underdog.

So, basically, I spent from 12:30 to 5 p.m. eating. I don't expect to eat again for a very long time. But maybe by this time next year I'll find my appetite again.

-- The Colorado Restaurant Association Hospitality Expo is held each year at the beginning of March. For more info on the "Champion de Cuisine," contact Victor Mathews at the Black Bear Restaurant, 684-9648.

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