Local Chef Challenge Countdown!

One of the biggest events in the local chef calendar is next weekend: The $10,000 prize Minnesota Monthly Local Chef Challenge, this year at the Mall of America—and free! The brackets (and competition times) are posted at mnmo.com/chefchallenge.

Have you started your own office pool? Personally, I have a hard time handicapping the contest. The only thing I can say is that some of the past winners—like Erik Andersen, who came in second two years ago, and Jack Riebel, last year’s winner—have a bit of an advantage because they’ve proved that they can cook under pressure with surprising ingredients, quickly, and grandly. Do you think you could do it? Here are the rules:

Each contestant is allowed to bring their own knives—and nothing else. No spoons, no containers of duck fat, no personally branded spice blends, nothing.

The chefs compete in elimination rounds. For each round, both of the competing chefs will get baskets (provided by Valley Natural Foods and Lakewinds Natural Foods) which will hold four ingredients, one of which should be a doozy. (Past doozies: Canned smoked oysters, jarred bread and butter pickles, lingonberries.) The baskets of four ingredients are identical for the two chefs competing in a specific round, but every round gets a new basket. The chefs are required to use all four ingredients. The chefs also have access to identical pantries, and are provided an assistant.

They’ll have 45 minutes to cook, and then another five minutes to plate their dishes. The chefs have to prepare four plates of food, one to display for the audience, and three for the judges.

The final dishes will be judged on use of the secret ingredients, taste, creativity, and presentation.

You can be there! Standing in the rotunda looking down, or seated in the audience. No ticket needed.

The grand prize is ten thousand dollars!

I’ve judged these the past two years with Jason DeRusha, my brother in restaurant reviewing at Minnesota Monthly, and Jason Ross, culinary instructor at Le Cordon Bleu. This year we’ll be joined by Cheryl Tiegs—seriously. The real one. Cheryl Tiegs will be eating the chefs’ food, with ten grand and their reputations also on the line.

I called up two of the competitors, Erik Anderson of Sea Change and Mike DeCamp of La Belle Vie, to find out what was most stressing them out about it all. “It’s just hard doing it on the fly,” Erik Anderson told me. “But I’m lucky to have worked under Doug Flicker [at Auriga and Porter & Frye; Flicker now owns Piccolo]. At Auriga we used to do nine-course tasting menus that were spontaneous. Watching Doug do those tasting menus out of thin air, it really helps you.” I asked Anderson if he plans to go into the event with adaptable recipes in mind, or to invent something totally new on the spot. “I generally try to do something new that I’ve never done before,” Anderson told me. “It makes more sense than trying to force a round peg into a square hole.” What will Anderson do if he wins the $10,000 prize? Probably get a nicer apartment for his upcoming six-week stage at Denmark’s NOMA, currently considered the Best Restaurant in the World.

Anderson’s opponent, Mike DeCamp, the chef de cuisine of La Belle Vie, told me that the hardest part of cooking in one of these contests is using unfamiliar equipment: “You find yourself expecting a piece of equipment, and it’s not anywhere in your area. You have to adapt. Last year we had about two burners apiece, and I think most of us are used to a couple more than that. It takes a little getting used to.” And it’s not like they get any advance time to get used to it. Minute one you take possession of your equipment, and at minute forty-five you’re done. So what’s DeCamp’s strategy? First, not shaving. It seems both DeCamp and Sean Smalley, chef at Smalley’s, the Caribbean spot in Stillwater, haven’t shaved since Thanksgiving, and DeCamp has decided the beard must stay for luck. Second, not freaking out. “I always get a little nervous until it’s time to go,” DeCamp told me, “but then it’s time to go and it doesn’t matter anymore. I’ve watched those behind the scenes bits of Iron Chef, and they always seem to have dishes in mind and then work the ingredient into it, but that seems easier said than done to me. I think it’s easier to just get it and deal with it.”

Deal with it like the chef trading cards falling out of every kitchen drawer? Yes, we printed up chef trading cards; you should find them in most of the participating chefs’ restaurants, sometimes in unexpected places. “Tim [McKee] decided to stick them everywhere in the kitchen,” DeCamp told me, “so every time I open a drawer, there I am.”

Can you think of a good way to use the chef trading cards? We decided just today we’ll also award a prize, a culinary gift basket, to the audience member or group who shows the most creative spirit or chef support. So make t-shirts! Fashion trading cards into ballgowns! Be creative. And come on down to the Minnesota Monthly Local Chef Challenge next weekend—it should be a blast.