Big Brothers/Big Sisters is a great organization doing wonderful things for the community – specifically matching kids who can use role models with people who can serve as mentors and friends. When the organization from NY’s Capital District asked me to judge a first ever benefit for their organization – new Iron Chef-like competition between a chef from Albany pitted against one from Saratoga at a benefit for the organization, I jumped at the chance. I was honored to be judging alongside area notables such as Steve Barnes (the lead food writer for The Albany Times-Union newspaper) and Jasper Alexander, the chef owner of Hattie’s, one of my favorite local restaurants. The event was held at the new Hampton Inn and Suites in Saratoga Springs, NY.
Local celebrity restaurateur LeGrande Serras was the emcee.
The contestants were A.J. Jayapal of The Brown Derby Restaurant representing Albany…
…and John Ireland of Panza’s Restaurant representing Saratoga. Each chef had to prepare three courses – an appetizer, main and dessert with each course utilizing a “secret ingredient” that was revealed to them that evening. Happily for me, that ingredient was lemon, an ingredient that I love.
While the dining room at the hotel is more conducive to intimate tete-a-tetes than to large format events, the staff did a good job preparing it for this event. The two “kitchens” were in the center of the room next to each other. Each had an area for an extended pantry and power for their equipment.
With the lemon now known to both chefs and an hour to cook, both chefs jumped right into the fray. Chef Jayapal was the first to come up with a dish.
His appetizer, quite colorful, was something that I had never seen before. He had a pan roasted tomato with blueberry compote, watercress, bacon and brie sauce. This worked better than I would have guessed, but Jayapal’s haste to have the first dish ultimately cost him points. The dish came out looking a little sloppy, was balanced heavily towards the sweet despite the bacon, watercress and brie and had little evidence of any lemon.
Ireland’s appetizer, on the other hand, was beautifully presented, well balanced, creative and ultimately delicious regardless of the less than ideal circumstances of its preparation. Ireland also used lemon wisely sufficiently for it be noticed.
His appetizer was asparagus with radishes, ramps and a lemon-fish sauce vinaigrette. This Southeast Asian inspired dish was remarkably well balanced, savory and would not have been out of place as a course in many a fine restaurant.
Jayapal’s main course was much better than his appetizer. A study in red, he cooked beet cous cous and paired it with roasted lamb and grilled vegetables with a tamarind sauce. Unfortunately, once again, his balance fell a bit too much on the sweet side for me and the dish lacked any discernible use of lemon.
Ireland also used lamb and once again, his dish was stellar. This time with more of a Greek styling, he roasted lamb (perfectly) and matched it with lemony raw zucchini ribbons, ramps, celery leaves and a lemon-ramp pesto. I would have been happy to eat this anywhere. This was turning out to be a very pleasant surprise.
With the judges’ comments all in agreement and presented immediately after each dish, Jayapal tried a little harder to include the secret ingredient in his dessert. His molten chocolate cake was very good, but ordinary. He made lemon ice cream, but again there just wasn’t enough lemon flavor. A shot of Bailey’s and some raspberries were not enough to elevate the dish to the level that he needed.
The dessert cause slammed the lid down on John Ireland’s victory. His lemon snow with citrus was refreshing and delicious. Ireland’s overall performance impressed each of the judges. His dinner was one that I would be happy to eat any time. Jayapal’s performance was very good under the circumstances, but not good enough to beat ireland’s inspired performance.
An adjunct to the proceedings was a People’s Choice Award for the best dining station of the evening. A number of area restaurants served dishes to the events attendees. The winner was Jimmy Schultz of 2Shea Catering in Glenmont, NY. By virtue of this award, Chef Schultz earned the right to challenge Chef Ireland in next year’s Chef’s Challenge.
A big thank you to Jami Thompson of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the Capital Region for organizing such a fun event and to Sabrina Houser, Susan Tobin and the entire BB/BS staff for doing such wonderful work!