Dining al fresco at the farm
Henri stumbles into the Gold Chefs competition
Henri has a terrible sense of direction. I had spent the afternoon at the Chico State University library researching the history of salad forks and by 6:30 was famished. I thought I’d head home and cook up little pesto pasta but decided to stop on the way at Chico Wine Cellars for a bottle of Bordeaux. Quelle erreur! Within minutes I had absolutely no idea where I was—again! The more I drove the more flummoxed I became.
Before long I was driving down a long straight narrow road through an orchard, the only sign of civilization an occasional dusty pickup truck or piece of farm equipment. Worst of all, the Cognac bottle from my first-aid kit was sitting at home on my dining-room table. Empty.
Suddenly, in the distance … What’s this? Was I dreaming? A man in shorts—and rather nice tan!—was standing in the roadway holding a glass of wine. As I approached, he waved me over to where I could see a line of cars. “Park over there,” he said, pointing with his wine glass.
Bien sur! If there’s any more of that wine.
Turns out I had stumbled onto the second annual Chico Farmers’ Market Dinner and Gold Chefs Challenge. Located at T. J. Farms on Chico Avenue, the event was billed as “a competition loosely based on The Iron Chef from the Food Network,” with all cooks using the same ingredients to make appetizers and main courses. All produce was to be local (from the farmers’ market). The event was open to local restaurants, caterers and even amateur cooks. There were 10 “competitors.”
I gladly paid the $35 for a ticket and was handed a foil “coin” that I was told I would use to vote for the chef I thought did the best job. I was excited about watching them work.
According to the programs on the tables—some two dozen, beautifully set and arranged about the lush lawn—I had about an hour to sample the various appetizers, and then, at 8:00, the chefs would begin serving their main courses. As I wandered, nibbling and sampling and sipping a decent little Salmon Creek Merlot, NewmanAmiYumi played exquisite jazz under a gazebo for the 250 or so quests.
Appetizer highlights included cold shrimp with a pineapple-nectarine-apricot puree (Wok In); crispy, thin-crusted margarita pizzas (Tom Reed); shrimp, green onions, jicama, cucumber, red pepper, mint, cilantro and a spicy sauce folded into Romaine lettuce leaves (Jedidiah’s); bruschetta with Gorgonzola, Bosh pears and walnuts (Gold Country Casino); and caramelized red onions and “martini green beans,” with vodka, vermouth, lime and olive oil (Friend of the Family Catering).
Main-dish highlights included salmon and whole baby octopus (Wok In); pork loin in apple merlot reduction (Gold Country); pork tenderloin with peach glaze (Jedidiah’s); and grilled tri-tip and grilled corn brushed with avocado oil (Tom Reed). The Sterling City Hotel set out a huge table of gorgeous desserts, including butterscotch cheesecake, strawberries dipped in chocolate, mapled walnut pie and assorted pastries.
Henri ended up leaving his coin in the bowl at Jedidiah’s table. The food was innovative, interesting and delicious. The winner was Friend of the Family Catering—which also hosted the event (and won last year as well).
Most everyone left about the same time, thankfully, and Henri followed the line of cars back to Chico. A wonderful evening and a nice event over all. The organizers hope someday to use some of the proceeds to offer agricultural or culinary scholarships to local youth.
Henri would only suggest that in the future it would be more interesting if the event were modeled more directly on The Iron Chef so that guests could watch the chefs working under the pressure of time and the constraints of identical ingredients. At Chico’s version, the cooks had been working for some time before the guests arrived, and the competition was far less strict: Cooks were allowed to bring some of their own ingredients—which ranged from marinated meats to produce to Costco pesto—although apparently not of all them knew ahead of time that they would be allowed to do so. When I asked one of the cooks where the shrimp came from, he said, frustrated, “What shrimp?”