Allowed to bring only basic cooking staples such as oil, flour and a few of their favorite utensils, five of Missoula’s most accomplished chefs wowed a crowd at Caras Park with what they could produce using local foods and a short amount of time.
The Garden City LocalFest Chef Challenge was a display of extreme foodie talent that had people salivating and eager to learn more about the finer techniques of cooking and food preparation.
“I love seeing how creative cooks work,” said Mary Rector, who was among the enthusiastic audience watching and learning from the culinary artists.
“It’s really an art form, and it’s amazing what they have done to transform their ingredients into these incredible looking dishes,” she said. “The best part – it is an all-local effort.”
Chefs taking part in the show included Walker Hunter of The Pearl Cafe, Erin Crobar of Finn and Porter, Noel Mills of the James Bar, Abe Risho of the Silk Road and Todd Engel of the Elbow Room.
Each chef had a celebrity helper, which included Jurgen Knoller of Bayern Brewing Inc.; Missoula Stampede Rodeo Queen Erika Blough; Susan Hay Patrick of United Way of Missoula County; Brooke Foster of KECI-TV; and Tracy Lopez of The Trail 103.3 FM.
The other stars of the chef challenge?
Ten Spoon Winery’s Farm Dog red wine and grass-finished ribeye steak from the Mannix Ranch in Helmville, which were the secret ingredients for the challenge.
Once the wine and beef were revealed, the chefs had $25 to purchase other ingredients at the neighboring Clark Fork River Market and a little more than an hour to create three to five different courses.
In the end, the chefs produced carefully envisioned and gorgeously presented dishes.
Among the many dishes Crobar whipped up was a beet and rhubarb crepe with a basil and lavender ice cream.
Risho effortlessly put together stuffed ravioli that included chard, feta and beef tossed in red wine with butter.
“I think all of the dishes look really colorful and delicious,” 23-year-old Sadie Russell said as she peered over shoulders and angled to get a closer look at the cooking action. “These are all the restaurants I like eating at, so it’s fun to see all the chefs up close and personal.”
The $500 first prize went to Mills, whose centerpiece offering was a towering and sumptuous eggs Benedict atop fresh English muffins from the market and decorated with vibrant – and edible – orange nasturtiums.
Judges Marianne Forrest, Bob Homer and Rose Marie Cockrell had a difficult time picking the winner.
“We all had a different person for first place and we had to duke it out,” Forrest said. “It was really hard choosing from all the blooming talent.
“Twenty years ago, it would have been very difficult to put this much talent in one room in one year. Now, we are struggling to separate the best from the best – it’s lovely.”
Homer said he was awed by the excellence and talent of each chef.
“The amazing thing was what these people could do in such a short period of time,” he said. “Everybody had at least one stellar dish that was amazing.”
The high-profile and well-received event was one of the highlights of the Sustainable Business Council’s annual LocalFest, which celebrates the importance of local business and educates the community about the power of supporting those businesses.
Saturday marked the end of a two-week community campaign to support local businesses and keep dollars in the local economy, said the SBC’s Susan Anderson.
LocalFest is a modern example of a long-established method of supporting the “little guy,” said Jon Kuennen, SBC’s festival coordinator.
“In the 1920s and 1930s, a lot of civic organizations like the Elks Club were one of many groups who stepped forward to protect the mom-and-pop shops against the encroachment of large business,” Kuennen said. “At that time, their version of big-box stores was Woolworths, which was hitting all the smaller communities pretty hard.”
One of the unique aspects of LocalFest, which showcased a wide variety of businesses and nonprofits, was the opportunity for those vendors to reach out to the community and further explain who they are and what they do, Anderson said.
This year’s LocalFest focused on food production and consumption.
On Saturday, with two separate farmers markets going on and the Chef Challenge, downtown Missoula certainly celebrated homegrown edibles, Forrest said.
“This all so wonderful,” she said. “We couldn’t do it without the farmers markets.”
Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at email@example.com.