2012 Best Chef Contest Challenges Popular Local Chefs
This week’s third annual Best Chef Competition by Beverly Bootstraps Community Services, Inc. was an evening that more than 250 will long remember. By, Andrea Fox
“It’s improving every year. I’m very happy with the selection of food. I haven’t tasted anything I wouldn’t order,” said Janice Preston, co-owner of Casa de Moda on Cabot Street in Beverly and a contributor and volunteer of Bootstraps.
Fifteen vendors offered generous tables overflowing with balanced flavors in delectable finger sizes—such as pea ravioli by Vic’s Boat House of Salem, chipotle-BBQ pulled pork sliders by first Best Chef champion Brendan Crocker of The Wild Horse Café in Beverly, and freshly seared crab cakes by Gloucester’s Willow Rest. There were tantalizing pastries galore—everything from classic French macaroons to chic red velvet cake balls, designed to look like cherry cordials, by The Topsfield Bakeshop. There were generously-sized sparkling grapefruit shortbread cookie sandwiches amidst chocolate decadence, and cakes like spice with fresh apple compote, that had some jubilant guests coming up for thirds at Kim Gregory’s organic pastry table.
The cocktail competition, samples of local beer like Honey Ginger by Cody Brewing Company, and flowing bottles of Fisherman’s Beer from Cape Ann Brewing Co. welcomed guests viewing the chefs at their stations. The Danversport Yacht Club bar, featuring last year’s Best Cocktail, the Clear Ginger Snap by Chianti in Beverly, warmed up the crowd. Kitty Burns of South Hamilton, one of the judges, really appreciated the herbal flavor of the cocktail winner—Hale Street Tavern’s Fuji Sake-tini. A smooth, refreshing green-hued martini topped with a feather of Shiso mint was the toast of the evening. Mixologist Cai Walkowiak of Green Land Café in Salem saw Beverly’s Hale Street as his toughest competition. Tied for second place was the Salem hat trick of Finz’ Ocean Flower, the “Church Sunrise” from 43 Church, and Green Land Café’s “The Bell’s of St. Clement’s.”
Barman Phil Buivid of Hale Street Tavern expressed his winning as an honor. “I don’t get a chance to do a lot with charity,” he said.
David Andelman, chief executive of Phantom Gourmet, as master of ceremonies, and Sue Gabriel, executive director of Bootstraps, drove the charity message home and the event became a true celebration of Bootstraps’ community services. At a time when budgets are tight, a 5-star Red Sox package for four garnered the organization $1,500 during the auction led by Don Kelly, who also succeeded in raising an anonymous $1,000 donor. The auction alone raised over $12,500 to support Bootstraps. The evening’s Peoples Choice Award Winner, Tastebuds in Beverly, described the organization as a beacon of hope. “We need that right now,” said owner Jean Pellegrini.
Gabriel read a thank you letter praising Bootstraps as full of local heroes that also illustrated how the organization works—the “a hand up, not a hand out” mission provides those in need with “an opportunity to better their own lives,” she explained. Event displays told the tale. In 2011, Bootstraps distributed 700 backpacks for back to School and more than 1,000 food items daily through its food pantry. Every two weeks, Bootstraps supplied participants with bags of groceries, including shares of more than 750 pounds of organic vegetables grown by volunteers on four plots at the Beverly Community Gardens. Bootstraps also offers training free of charge—12-hour job workshops, basic and advanced computer classes, and life skills courses with speakers that address various topics, including budgeting and personal finance.
Creativity Kings the Chef
This year’s Best Chef competition required the same measure of creativity that Bootstraps uses to care for the Beverly and Manchester communities. The judges were looking specifically for it. Summing up the event perfectly, Judge Erin McMurrer, Test Kitchen director at America’s Test Kitchen, said, “it’s a great challenge to use what’s available to you.”
Echoing this sentiment, Chef Antonio Bettencourt of 62 on Wharf in Salem revealed that the pantry was no easy task. Smiling wryly when asked about his toughest competition, he quipped, “the food pantry.” The competition requires the winning dish to be composed 75% from the pantry. All four teams chose their product a week or two prior to the event. “That really got the wheels spinning,” said Bettencourt. Alongside the judges, an honored guests table discussed how the competition illuminated imagination.
This year’s Best Chef, Chef Sam Hunt along with Sous Chef Scott Sena of 15 Walnut in Hamilton, said their winning strategy was about “covering all the bases.” “We wanted to use as much from the pantry as possible,” said Hunt. Using distilled white vinegar and salt, they added milk and made their own ricotta cheese the night before. With a box of dehydrated potato, jelly from canned ham, and flakes from canned light tuna they set “Tuna-Scented Potato Gnocchis” in a light red sauce of canned tomatoes, jarred capers, and onions. They added texture and a smoky pop to their dish with a homemade “pork chip” made from canned ham, sliced thin, and then slow-roasted in olive oil and dried rosemary. The team crowned this winner with a tantalizing poached egg yolk from Green Meadows Farm, in a nod to 15 Walnut’s premier local purveyor.
The competition was not necessarily in the bag. The Wild Horse’s Crocker obliged Northshore by checking out each team’s choices from the pantry and said he found himself intrigued by what La Chantarelle had on the table—they had everything from sweet peas and canned peaches to all gluten-free starches like penne, and rice and seed crackers. Composed of four hospitality management students from Endicott College, the team said they felt they were the competition’s underdogs. “Out of everyone here we’re the least experienced…but we have a chance of winning,” said an enthusiastic chef Courtney Wynn of Wallingford, Conn. Their dish was an elegant cup made from crackers, Mexican cheese, and butter, which held a delicate succotash, as bright orange puree embellished their plates.
Bettencourt’s characteristic style came through in his dish—a perfectly seared chicken cake (canned, from the pantry) atop generous black and white bean succotash over grilled romaine, topped with pineapple salsa. Lobsta Land of Gloucester had the largest, most diverse plate of elements pairing fresh lobster, tomatoes, avocado, and a bottle of Fisherman’s IPA with the pantry’s shredded coconut, canned black beans, rice, tortillas, and numerous spices. By the honored guest’s table, one could hear “oohs” and “ahs” along with exultations of “nutritious” and “delicious.”
Andrea Fox is a freelance writer based in Beverly. She has 10+ years experience in the restaurant industry and is currently a part-time floor manager at Green Land Café in Salem.
All Photo Credits: Sharon’s Studio of Gloucester