Iron Chef – like cooking competitions have become quite popular in recent years and I have had the honor to participate in a few regional ones as a judge. They have all been fun, but the new “Cast Iron Chef” competition, the brain-child of local culinary enthusiast Tom Thibeault, whose company, Adirondack Appliance is the sponsor of the events, has taken the concept to new levels. He has gathered many of the region’s top chefs to participate in a laddered competition that started several weeks ago and will culminate in September with the finals at The Saratoga Fall Wine, Food and Ferrari Festival at The Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
The first leg of this four part event took place from June 1st through the 8th at the Saratoga Springs Parade of Homes with 6 teams emerging to continue in the competition. The top two teams, based on overall points, took byes to move to directly to the Semi-Finals. This past Saturday, the second leg of the event took place at the Saratoga Farmers Market.
Two separate competitions took place to determine the last two semi-finalists to compete in the next round. Each team of two cooks was equipped with an EVO flat-topped plancha, a large Big Green Egg grill and a 36″ Blue Star Range, all provided by Adirondack Appliance. Each of the two rounds of competition were given a mystery basket of three ingredients that had to be used, “market money” to purchase fresh ingredients directly from the market that was in progress and the ability to bring a limited number of pantry items from their restaurants. Each team had to produce a minimum of three courses within 90 minutes (including shopping time) and were judged on overall taste, creativity, plating and the use of the basket ingredients with each category having a maximum of ten points. The contestants in each of the two competitions competed only against each other.
The first competition of the day was between Max London’s Restaurant and The Local, both located in Saratoga. Max London’s was represented by Mark Graham, a popular chef, who had recently returned to cooking in Saratoga and who recently returned to Max’s kitchen.
The Local was led by Chef Tim James. I had not previously been familiar with this restaurant located in the Beekman Arts District of the city, but after their performance here, I intend to know them much better.
For the first round the three market ingredients that needed to be utilized at some point of their meals included goat shoulder chops, yogurt and Cortland apples. Both competitors set off briskly with their assistants through the market to supplement their pantry. It was a busy and beautiful day in the market with plenty of beautiful fresh vegetables, fruit, herbs, cheeses and meat and fish to choose from. I was excited at the prospects.
Mark Graham from Max London’s was up first. His initial course was a beautifully arranged salad of immaculate market produce with early season heirloom tomatoes, Chiogga beets, Cortland apple, cucumber and mixed Kilpatrick Family Farm micro-greens. It wasn’t particularly creative, but its fresh flavors were overwhelmingly clean with a light olive oil-balsamic reduction dressing that focused on the salad’s delicious natural flavors. The presentation was quite pretty as well.
Graham’s second course proved to be my favorite of the entire day. He creatively used a very large zucchini by slicing it cross-wise ultra-thin with a mandoline. These round slices were laid in olive oil and sandwiched around one of my very cheeses – White Lily goat cheese from Sweet Springs Farm that was purchased with their “market money.” This was then heated gently over a bain marie and served with a dollop of sweet potato/goat cheese puree. The colorful preparation’s flavor and textures were sublime and the sheer simplicity of the preparation was remarkable and inspiring. I will be trying this at home.
Graham daringly used his goat shoulder chops on the grill. Goat meat can be tough and lends itself to techniques like braising more readily than it does to a grill in my experience, but Graham quickly marinated them in yogurt and lemongrass and had the meat thinly sliced to minimize their toughness. He served the meat with lightly grilled broccoli rabe, asparagus, yellow oyster mushrooms, Cortland apple and sour cherries that had just come to the market. It was a lovely presentation, a tasty dish and he used all of the market ingredients creatively and effectively. Each of his dishes was tasty and very well executed.
When Chef Tim James of The Local stepped up with a Panzanella, I thought it would be tasty, but expected it to lose points on creativity. I was right on the first count, but wrong on the second. made with wilted kale, the creativity and extra deliciousness came through an unusual use of smoke. Smoke has certainly become a much more common ingredient in contemporary cooking, but I had not previously experienced it the way Chef James used it here. He smoked the Rockhill baguette chunks with hickory in the Big Green Egg and even more interestingly, he smoked the grape tomatoes with rosemary. The results, combined with the cabernet reduction underneath and olive oil, and sea salt was rather delicious.
Goat stews, such as the hearty one prepared by Chef James and The Local team are generally better suited for a cold winter’s day, but it was tasty enough to still be enjoyed on this warm early summer morning. The goat had been briefly smoked in the Big Green Egg before it it was stewed along with root vegetables and the same cabernet reduction that was in the panzanella. This, however, was aided by a raspberry beer that added a touch of sweetness and complexity to the tasty stew.
James finished with a dessert. This consisted of crumbled chocolate chip cookies from the market underneath a compote of smoked apple, strawberries and blueberries with maple syrup, yogurt whipped cream and a touch of bourbon chocolate on top. This would have been amazing with just the fruit and the whipped cream, but to all of the judges’ palates, the chocolate chip cookies made it too sweet.
The intense sweetness of The Local’s dessert was the deciding factor in awarding the victory to Mark Graham and Max London’s Restaurant. Both chef’s and their teams produced some truly delicious food. Tim James’ cooking, rustic and flavorful impressed me to want to get to The Local sooner rather than later. Unlike Max London’s, which I know well and enjoy, I had some how been unaware of this relatively new Saratoga gastropub. Well, I am aware of it now.
The second competition of the morning stood betwwen Yono’s of Albany and The Mouzon House, located in Saratoga right behind the Farmers Market. The three market ingredients that had to be used at some point in the meal included sand shark from Pura Vida Fisheries, pecorino cheese from Dancing Ewe and pak dong from Pucker’s Pickles.
Chef Dave Pedinotti from The Mouzon House went first. His zucchini ball was stuffed with Brookside Farm sausage and some sand shark along with rice, scallions and beet greens from Denison farm. The ball was covered with goat and pecorino cheeses. It lay in a flavorful mole-like sauce. I wasn’t too enthusiastic when the dish was presented, but I was quickly won over by its great flavor. Though we really couldn’t discern it amongst the other strong flavors of the dish, Chef Pedinotti got some credit for daring to include shark in the dish and having it still work.
Though not really a beautiful dish, Pedinotti’s second course was superb. His EVO grilled sand shark was perfectly moist and flavorful. He incorporated the pak dong into a green salad served over the fish and had some lovely baby beets to add sweetly savory touch, but the real star of this dish was his fresh lobster scented fettucine served underneath the fish. This was flavorful and perfectly cooked.
The final course from the Mouzon House was a fantastic dessert. Traditionally made crepes were served with blueberries and Stannard Farm sour cherries with a brown sugar glaze and Grand Marnier with Argyle Farm yogurt on top. While not particularly creative and original, it was certainly delicious and satisfying with just the right degree of sweetness and tart balance.
Yono’s first course was much more creative than it initially appeared. He made a squid carbonara using the squid itself as a fettucine like pasta that had been dyed black with squid ink. It was very tasty, but the “pasta” was a little “tough” especially when compared against Pedinotti’s ethereal lobster fettucine. Yono, however, did not make it clear that the pasta itself was actually squid.
Like The Mouzon House team, Yono’s could only see fit to use the pak dong watered down as part of a green salad. The salad itself was fine, albeit neither as beautifully presented nor quite as delicious as the one Mark Graham had served in the first competition. Without any discernible contribution from the pak dong and no clear sense of creativity beyond separate basil and beet emulsions on either side of the plate, this “extra” course wound up costing Yono’s like the dessert earlier cost The Local.
Yono’s as a restaurant has two identities. One is very nice classic French and the other is Indonesian, Yono’s native cuisine and it is equally adept at both. For his main course, Yono mixed some Indonesian influence in with a Continental -inspired dish. He seared the sand sharke and paired it with a coconut and lemongrass based Indonesian Kare sauce. This was served with an asparagus risotto and grilled vegetables. The fish and the sauce were wonderfully matched, but the risotto was thick and dry and some of the vegetables had been burnt.
Yono’s dessert and final course, a cinnamon, raisin, pecan bread pudding with a Framboise raspberry sauce, balsamic glaze and a bourbon creme anglaise was quite tasty, but lacking in creativity.
Yono’s is an excellent restaurant, but it is not a restaurant to go to if one desires the latest cutting edge culinary techniques. What they do, they do very well as exemplified in this competition, but creativity as expected in cutting edge restaurants is not part of that equation. That does not make it a bad restaurant, but it does make it more difficult to succeed in a setting such as this.
As a result, the winner of this battle was David Pedinotti and The Mouzon House. In what is sure to be a confusing competition, they will go on to face Jaime Ortiz of The Mazzone Group in the semifinals, while Max London’s goes up against The Wishing Well. They should both be interesting contests.