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?

Dinner Lab: Beer! Please! Drunk Food Redefined

Who doesn’t have a favorite food to chow on when you’ve been drinking a couple of beers?  Now imagine a five course menu of elevated versions of all those favorite foods.  Good, right?!  That’s what Chef Brooks Hart offered to Dinner Lab diners at their second Cleveland event.

Dinner-Lab2-welcome card

When I read the menu sent to members in the weeks leading up to the dinner, it wasn’t a hard sell for me.  Billed as drunk food redefined, it also boasted beer pairings from two increasingly popular local breweries.  Sold.

Dinner-Lab2-view

As is always the case, the venue isn’t revealed until about 24 hours before the event.  And I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the second venue would be at the penthouse space of Skylight Financial Group, offering a unique and unforgettable view of the city.  We drank in the scenery and the cocktail hour special, named for the chef in honor of his 30th birthday.

Dinner-Lab2-ceviche

After the 30 minute cocktail hour, I was ready to dig in to course #1, a deconstructed fish taco with halibut ceviche, marinated in coconut milk and thai chili and crispy tortilla strips.  The fish was the perfect temperature and texture.  I could’ve done without so much lime juice.  But still a great start!  This was paired with Platform Black Eagle from Platform Beer Co.

Dinner-Lab2-poutine

The second course was a nod to all the Canadians and gravy fans in the dining room…poutine with crispy fingerling potatoes, a tempura cheese curd (my favorite element of this dish) and some lemon rind confit, (which was a surprise when I took the first bite, but I loved it too)

Dinner-Lab2-beer

The beer offering for this one was a smooth and refreshing compliment to the food, Platform Symon Says Saison from Platform Beer Co. It’s brewed exclusively for Iron Chef Michael Symon’s “B Spot”, (their website describes it as a citrus driven peppery saison utilizing a specialty yeast blend specific for this beer)

Dinner-Lab2-Pizza and braised bacon

Our third course was a tale of two dishes, for me.  It was listed as a pizza, but you could hardly eat it that way  The raclette flatbread with butter roasted mushrooms that served as the base was tasty, but a little tough.  And it was impossible to pick it up, or slice into the braised bacon and eat all of it as one bite as it was likely intended.  When I gave up and ate the elements separately, I was happy again.

Dinner-Lab2-commet card

As we ate and chatted with our guests, some friends who also enjoy food and these kinds of experiences as much as we do, I made sure to jot down a few notes on my comment card.  No, I’m not one of those people who does this at every restaurant I go…this is a huge part of the process for Dinner Lab and its chefs.  They take the feedback back to “the lab” and make changes (or not) according to the comments from their diners.

Dinner-Lab2-pretzel croissant

Course number four was the crowd favorite by far.  It was a pretzel croissant with marinated gouda and blueberry mustard.  I know…sounds a little crazy.  But I wanted a whole box of those pretzels and a vat of the blueberry mustard to take home!!

Dinner-Lab2-Chef Brooks Hart.Dinner-Lab2-preztel prep

One diner even stood up and whistled to get the crowd’s attention so he could shout “That preztel was the bomb!”  The chef told us he was relieved to hear it, as he put a lot of muscle power into rolling out enough of those for two seatings.  The beer pairing for that course was also my favorite, the Albino Stout from Butcher and the Brewer.  I order it every time I go there.  Great choice!

Dinner-Lab2-dessert

For dessert we had another helping of culinary imagination…a chocolate brownie topped with pickled peanuts (in a caramel sauce) creme fraiche and ganache.  I loved the bravery and spirit of adventure that this process fosters among its chefs.  Who pickles peanuts?!

Dinner-Lab2-dinning room view

We had mixed feelings about the dining room.  I loved the view of downtown, especially at sunset.  But once dinner began, the fluorescent lights of the business space took over.  To be honest, it wasn’t a distraction or something that hindered the experience…just an observation.

Dinner-Lab2-prep

We also got a chance to chat with both the chef and event manager by the end of the evening.  I was pleased to hear that a lot of what we ate was sourced from the iconic West Side Market and I am excited about the next venue (got the inside scoop…stay tuned…and hungry!)