Taconite Chef

Four top chefs trash-talk, knife-swap, and cook their way to hotdish victory

Welcome to Minnesota Monthly’s ï¬rst annual Taconite Chef competition, a Minnesota-style cook-off based loosely on television’s popular Iron Chef. Here in the teaching kitchen at the St. Paul Cooks of Crocus Hill, Joan Ida of Triä buttons her chef’s coat; Scott Irestone of 20.21 sharpens his knives; Tanya Siebenaler of Sapor Café and Bar inventories the available equipment, and Steven Brown of Restaurant Levain slips into his kitchen shoes, a pair of bright green Crocs. The competition’s theme is “Hotdish Redux.” The chefs have 2 1/2 hours in which to take an iconic casserole ingredient and incorporate it in a creation that’s delicious and beautiful. Ida draws cream of mushroom soup; Irestone, French-fried onions; Siebenaler, Tater Tots; and Brown, canned green beans. Each chef is given $50 to buy additional ingredients. It’s 9:30 a.m. and the clock is ticking.

Watch WCCO’s video of the Taconite Chef competition. See the winning recipe here.


Kowalski’s on Grand Avenue. The chefs rush the produce aisles. Siebenaler fills her basket with plump red tomatoes; Ida selects a fennel bulb; Brown is creating a traffic jam near the greens, asking an employee if the store carries mesclun.


Brown zigzags through the aisles, halting in front of the oils. He opens a tiny bottle of truffle oil, holds it to his nose and sniffs, marginally satisfied. “Guess I’m buying this,” he says.


Siebenaler checks out, handing the cashier onions, leeks, tomatoes, and herbs.


Siebenaler makes a U-turn back to the produce section. “You can’t pass up Minnesota sweet corn,” she says.

Photo by Eric Moore


Standing in a deserted aisle, Ida mentally tallies the contents of her basket: carrots, mushrooms, jalapeño peppers, flour, sour cream, butter….


At the register, Irestone tosses two Cokes in his basket. French-fried onions and…Coke? “They’re for me,” he clarifies. “I don’t drink coffee.” When the bill comes to $42.03, he throws in a copy of Minnesota Monthly, just for good measure.


Back at Cooks. The chefs were each allowed to bring one “secret weapon” ingredient from home. Ida chose Thai basil; Irestone, roasted chicken demi-glace; Brown brought a few Italian truffles, each as big as a child’s fist; and Siebenaler didn’t bring anything.


Ida’s staff at Triä made her a Taconite Chef music mix, which kicks off with AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” Irestone dumps the fried onions into a food processor and pulverizes them.


The air is thick with the scent of frying bacon, an ingredient three out of the four chefs picked up at Kowalski’s. (Secret’s out.)


Brown has meticulously laid out his workspace, mise en place: a stack of fresh green beans, a few shallots, a ramekin of chopped green onions, knives neatly arranged on a folded towel as if they’re a surgeon’s scalpels. He briskly rolls garlic cloves between his palms, removing the papery skin. He cuts each clove like an onion: thin horizontal slices, lengthwise vertical slices, then fine perpendicular cuts.


Irestone stops chopping herbs to check his BlackBerry. Is he cheating? No, just making sure his crew back at 20.21 is faring okay without him.


All six stove burners are occupied: sautéed onions; a simmering mix of sweet corn and cream; boiling water; polenta; sizzling bacon; and an empty pot. Ida stands over the adjacent grill, branding chicken thighs with thick black lines.


Smoke fills the room. The chefs scramble to find the switch for the range’s hood ventilator. “Ida won’t take that [bleep]ing chicken off the grill for nothing,” Brown teases.


The theme from Star Wars blares from the stereo. Siebenaler flicks drops of water into a pot of oil to check if it’s hot. Ida chops a fennel bulb. “I can’t stand celery,” she says. “I always substitute fennel.”


Brown tosses cubes of butter into the polenta one at a time as he stirs. “Don’t try this at home,” he says, as one slips from his fingers to the floor.


Siebenaler purées her cream-and-sweet-corn mixture. Irestone slices paper-thin sweet potato chips with a mandoline.


A tune by the Decemberists comes on the stereo. “Here’s your song,” Ida says to Brown, who cocks his head to hear the singer’s chirpy warble: “I’m really sorry, Steven, but your bicycle’s been stolen….”

Photo by Eric Moore


“You can’t do anything in cooking without bacon,” Ida says as she snacks on a crunchy bit of pork. She hasn’t opened the mushroom soup yet. “I’m waiting until I absolutely have to,” she says. “It was the last thing I wanted to get.” Ida says she’d been hoping for the Tater Tots so she could make red curry with beef.


Siebenaler arranges tomato slices in a spiral, covering the bottom of a cast-iron pan. She pours the cream-and-corn mixture over the tomatoes and tosses the Tater Tots on top.


What’s the hardest thing about participating in a cook-off? “I think right now it’s peeling this [bleep] egg,” Brown laments, as he picks away bits of brown shell and egg white, creating unsightly pocks on the smooth, soft-boiled sphere. Brown’s salty language has caused him some notoriety, as he was quoted in a previous issue of Minnesota Monthly dropping the F-bomb. Brown says that after the article came out, an elderly reader called him at Restaurant Levain to tell him she was ashamed of him. “She said, ‘I’ll never come back to Lucia’s again,’” Brown says with a smirk.


Brown and Ida discuss their ingredients:
“I was definitely happy for the green beans,” Brown says.
“Cuz they suck,” Brown says. “Crisis equals opportunity, Ida. I was challenged by the green beans and then the proverbial gates opened for me.” He tosses yet another soft-boiled egg in the trash and starts to peel a new one.
Ida pops the lid on the mushroom soup. “Aren’t you jealous?” she says, jiggling the grayish goo.


Siebenaler removes deep-fried leeks from the oil, then drizzles reduced balsamic vinegar onto the tomatoes. Irestone takes the pork chops he’s brined and coats them in the fried-onion crumbs.


Brown opens the green beans and pops one in his mouth. “They taste a lot like…salt,” he says.


Do chefs ever get to eat at each other’s restaurants? “I’m still waiting, Steven,” Ida says to Brown, who hasn’t yet made it to Triä in North Oaks. “Gas prices are too high,” ribs Irestone.


Ida deftly tucks and pinches her casserole crust. Brown starts cooking a new batch of soft-boiled eggs.


Siebenaler removes her dish from the oven. She prepares to flip the pan, so that the Tots are on the bottom and tomatoes on top. She says she’s a little nervous. The others rate their stress level on a scale from 1 to 10: Brown, 2.5, Irestone, 0, Ida, negative 2.


Siebenaler’s flip was successful; the tomatoes stayed in place. Ida removes her casserole with its crust nicely browned. Irestone and Brown garnish their plates.


The judges take their places at the table: Ann Burckhardt, author of Hot Dish Heaven; Sue Zelickson, host of WCCO Radio’s Food for Thought; Mrs. Gilmer Gilmerson (played by Greta Grosch) and Mrs. Elroy Engelson (Dorian Chalmers), stars of the Plymouth Playhouse’s Church Basement Ladies.


Time’s up.

THE JUDGES TASTE Irestone’s dish: French-fried onion–crusted pork loin with braised chard, maple-glazed beets, and bacon-thyme jus, garnished with thin crisps of deep-fried sweet potatoes and mushrooms. Mrs. Gilmerson lets out a hearty “Uff da” upon finishing her first bite. “Uff da-feeda,” Mrs. Engelson chimes in, then explains, “That’s a real big ‘uff da.’” “Do you think he’d give us the recipe so we could put this in the next church cookbook?” Gilmerson inquires. Engelson nods her head. “So far, Scott’s in the lead.”

Brown presents four plates of his deconstructed “casserole”: greens tossed with double-smoked bacon, shiitake mushrooms, maple vinaigrette—and disks of fresh and canned green beans—paired with poached egg and a tiny polenta cake. The judges grumble a bit about the way Brown has “masked” his ingredient, but agree that his creation looks and tastes fantastic. If cooks always took this much care to beautify each dish, Gilmerson notes, “we’d never get the line through the lutefisk dinner.”

Siebenaler dishes up her “Tot Tatin,” a take on the French apple dessert, tarte Tatin. “It takes a lot of skill to flip it,” Burckhardt notes. The ladies love the fresh flavors, saying they taste like Minnesota summer distilled into a dish.
As Ida serves her roasted chicken-mushroom pot pie with sweet corn and bacon, she tells the judges that she almost used her ingredient to make cream of mushroom ice cream. “That would not have been good,” Burckhardt says, shaking her head. Ida’s pot pie makes the commercial frozen varieties seem hardly recognizable. “You don’t use oleo in your crust?” Gilmerson says, marveling at the flaky butter-and-bacon-fat pastry. “Did you estimate the calories in this dish?” Zelickson asks. “It’s a diet dish,” Ida responds. “You have it and then you go on a diet.”

The judges confer for a few moments before declaring Irestone the first-ever Taconite Chef. But really, Burckhardt insists, everyone was a winner. Gilmerson concurs: “You all can cook at our church basement any time.” MM

Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.

Watch WCCO’s video of the Taconite Chef competition. Read reporter Jason DeRusha’s blog about the event.  See the winnning recipe here.

A Runner Up:


Serves 6-8

From Tanya Siebenaler, chef and co-owner of Sapor Café and Bar:

1    cup balsamic vinegar
3    ears sweet corn
1    pint cream
6    sprigs fresh thyme
3    sprigs fresh oregano
4    ripe tomatoes, thinly sliced
salt and pepper to taste
1    32-ounce bag Tater Tots

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In small sauce pan, reduce balsamic vinegar to a syrup-like consistency. Slice corn from cob and reserve kernels. Scrape cobs with back of knife to remove excess corn. Simmer cobs in cream for 20 minutes with 3 sprigs thyme and 2 sprigs oregano. Pick leaves of remaining herbs and chop.

Lightly grease a 12-inch non-stick sauté pan. Fan tomatoes in thin layer to cover bottom of sauté pan. Drizzle a spoonful of reduced balsamic vinegar and sprinkle chopped herbs over tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Strain cream from corn cobs. Return cream to pan and add corn kernels. Simmer about 5 minutes or until sauce is thick enough to coat back of spoon. Purée sauce in blender—mixture should be thick. Season with salt and pepper.

Spread thick layer of corn cream sauce on tomatoes and cover with layer of Tater Tots. Use entire bag if you choose. Bake in oven 16 to 18 minutes or until Tater Tots are golden brown and crispy. Let Tot Tatin rest for 10 minutes. Cover sauté pan with large plate and flip Tot Tatin onto plate. Garnish with remaining balsamic vinegar, serve, and enjoy.