Marriott International Cooksmart Culinary Challenge

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.

cooksmart-winner

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?

Fire Spice Company

Want to be more bold with spices? But maybe you’re a little intimidated.  Or you don’t want to drop $7 on a 5 ounce container of an exotic spice you only need a pinch of for that recipe you want to try.  Now’s your chance.  Enter Fire Spice Company.

Chef katz

Another one of my favorites in the Cleveland food scene, and celebrated chef, Douglas Katz (of Fire Food & Drink, Provenance, and The Katz Club) has been developing his line of spice blends for about a year now.  And he’s only a little more than a month away from a scheduled March launch.

Katz wants to make it easier for home cooks to be more adventurous with spices (with both your taste buds and your cooking skills), eliminate the anxiety that can come with experimenting with more exotic varieties, and take some of the expense out of working with a certain spices.

He and his team have developed 12 blends, which they toast and grind in house.  The blends have been tested and are intended for specific recipes.  The packaging is clever and makes it easy to execute.  Printed on the box is a list of the ingredients you’ll need for the associated recipe, and the detailed directions.

During my visit with Katz, we gave his Jerk Spice mix a go, marinating chicken leg quarters in a combination of the spice packet, and fresh ingredients.  After they sat for about 30 minutes, it was time to roast.

Fire Spice roasted chicken

The finished product was spectacular, succulent, savory.  And I was doubly surprised, as I have NEVER liked jerk seasoning on anything.  But man, was this good.

For dessert Chef Katz presented a French Spice Cake that he’d prepared using his Quatre Epices blend.  To prepare the frosting for top, he also used the same blend.  If the speed in which my two girls gobbled up that cake was any indication, consider that recipe “tried and true.”

I love the idea of dabbling in cuisines and flavors that I’ve traditionally not been equipped to handle.  His Masala variety, and accompanying Ground Lamb and Tomato Masala, Pho blend and accompanying Vietnamese Beef Noodle Pho recipe, and Massaman spice pack for the Thai Shrimp, Potato Peanut Curry recipe are on my short list of “must try” recipes.

The Fire Spice Company blends are available now at Fire. (1322o Shaker Square, Cleveland, Ohio 44120) Katz aims to have them available online nationally soon, and has plans for availability at local farmers markets and demo classes.  There’s also a “Spice Blend of the Month” membership in the works.  Sign me up!

Now, let’s expand our horizons and our palate.