What is it they say at the beginning of an Iron Chef competition? “So now America, with an open heart and an empty stomach, I say unto you in the words of my uncle: ‘Allez cuisine!'” The phrase calls the chefs to the culinary battle. And what a battle it was at the Marriott International Cooksmart Culinary Challenge.
I felt like a distinguished Food Network judge (along side Eric Williams and Tricia Chaves), sitting atop an elevated stage, ready to sample the hard work of up and coming sous chefs from Marriott properties all around the region.
I thought I’d be walking in to a generic corporate ballroom modestly put together to accommodate the competition. But I grossly underestimated the production value of this event! There was staging, and lighting and music, a live video feed of the action on large screens (thanks to Rock the House), and a real Iron Chef America Judge, Mario Rizzotti.
Eight talented and up and coming Marriott chefs advanced from hotel-level cook-offs, to compete here. These are hourly associates and supervising chefs, at the top of their game. They were tasked with a pretty daunting challenge: make something delicious, in 45 minutes, incorporating four mystery ingredients. Those were lamb liver, monk fish, pickled green tomatoes and coffee. I don’t know about you, but those don’t sound like an appealing group of ingredients to me.
When the clock started, the judges were encouraged to walk around the room, not only to chat up the chefs about what they were making, but also to take notes on how they kept their stations. In previous competitions I’ve judged, we been tasked with ranking them from 1-5 or 1-10 in categories like taste, texture, presentation, etc. But in this competition the scoring was far more intense, and including things like mise en place and sanitation.
And as if the pressure wasn’t intense enough, Mario was walking around the room interviewing the chefs as they were working. But everybody seemed to handle the pressure like champs. When the clock wound down, the chefs presented their dishes on stage and explained how they incorporated all these seemingly incompatible ingredients.
Most admitted they’d never worked with liver before and struggled with the cook on it. But some used it wisely and flavored things like gravy, sauce or couscous with the sometimes off-putting protein.
When the scores were tallied, it was a unanimous decision to crown Courtney Nielsen, of the Renaissance Hotel in Columbus, as the victor. She cleverly made a spin on dirty rice with the liver, made coffee and used it for the liquid, pan seared the monk fish and whipped up a pickled veg salad. To me, it was the most harmonious off all the entries.
As the winner, she’ll be sent to Marriott HQ and test kitchen in Washington D.C. where she’ll get to rub elbows with corporate chefs and VIPs. The brass behind this event say it was created to recognize their young talent and support sous chefs and cooks who do a lot of the heavy lifting in the kitchens of their properties, and while it’s only regional for now, they expect this Farm to Fork Culinary Challenge to be a national event come next year.
What an honor it was to serve on this panel (get my first….and second-eighth tastes of lamb liver!) and help support talented, creative people like these chefs. They rose to the challenge. Days later, I still can’t imagine what I would have done with a mystery basket like the one they were presented with. What would you have made?