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Last year it was gusting winds; this year it was monsoon-like rains that increased the challenges of an already adrenalin-producing event: the BEAT Shoreline Chef outdoor cooking competition held on the grounds of the Florence Griswold Museum during the Old Lyme Midsummer Festival.
But the four local chefs who participated in this past Saturday's event kept their cool and their stove tops hot, each producing a distinctive dish using limited ingredients under a tight deadline.
The concept for the competition came from Linnea Rufo, owner of the Bee and Thistle Inn, inspired by the popular Food Network TV show "Chopped," where up-and-coming chefs are given surprise baskets of ingredients from which to create a three-course meal.
The BEAT chefs only have to cook an entrée, but unlike cooking in a climate-controlled studio with state-of-the-art equipment, they have fickle weather conditions to contend with and portable stoves on which to do their magic.
Rufo says she cooked up the idea of the event as a way to add a food entertainment component to the Midsummer Festival.
"There's the en plein air market with fresh produce items, but this was a way to bring in some local chefs to show what they can do with the ingredients, and put them under the gun a little-a forum to see how spontaneously they can create something," Rufo said.
This year's chefs were Debra Corning of the Monkey Farm in Old Saybrook; Nick Dion, who recently opened Jessie's Restaurant in Old Lyme with his girlfriend Jessica; Kris Rowe of the Bee and Thistle Inn; and Stonington native Dennis Young of the Old Lyme Inn.
"They all donated their time-Saturdays are very busy in restaurants," Rufo pointed out.
The judges were Sheldon Baker, PM Magazine's "Phantom Gourmet"; Linda Guica, food writer/columnist and owner of Alforno Ristorante in Old Saybrook; Lee White, food writer/columnist for the Times and Shore Publishing weeklies; and yours truly.
The chefs were given seven secret ingredients, all of which had to be included their dishes: Eight Ball (round) zucchini, peaches and scallions from Scott's Farm in Essex; local Old Ledge Apiaries pure honey; goat cheese from Beltane Farm in Lebanon and pancetta (Italian bacon) and quail eggs from Fromage in Old Saybrook.
No one knew what the ingredients were going to be, Rufo noted, including the Bee and Thistle's Rowe-who took first place.
"I put those quail eggs in at the last minute," she said, "and then I worried about it the night before-how hard it would be for them to use in the mix. I was amazed at how they poached, fried, boiled them-it blew me away. To me, everyone was a winner."
The chefs also were allowed to use up to five of their own pantry ingredients.
They had 30 minutes to produce four plates of their dish for each judge to sample. The dishes were scored on flavor, creativity and presentation.
"Not only are they using 'secret' ingredients," Guica observed during the competition, "but they're cooking on little stoves without a lot of space to work, outside, in the rain-it's incredible. I couldn't do this."
"I really had trouble deciding who was the winner and who was the loser," said Baker, who also judged last year's competition.
"The quality of food and the sophistication of flavors is steadily increasing as the restaurants are hiring chefs with more and more talent," he added. "I'm really optimistic about the food scene here."
"The dishes are all so good with the local fresh ingredients and the pancetta-it was difficult to score," agreed White. "I'd like to see some of these on a menu."
Rowe, who won first place for his "Eight Ball Zucchini Napoleon" admits it takes a lot of quick thinking to cook under these conditions.
"When you're cooking in a restaurant, you have time to prepare. It's not like this. Speed is of the essence," he said.
Rowe says timing was his primary consideration and everything else followed, organically coming together.
"My first thought was there is no way I can poach the egg-I'm going to fry it-although Nick and Dennis figured out how to poach the eggs really quick," he said.
"I knew I had to try to get the pancetta crispy, and then I was wondering what I would do with the zucchini, which was going to take the longest to cook. So I sliced it thin ... seared it in the pan over the flame to give it a little more char flavor since the burner wasn't that hot, and stacked it as a Napoleon."
Rowe says the peach didn't throw him.
"I've been doing a peach barbecue sauce with pork tenderloin, so the concept of peach and pork blended perfectly for me and made a nice combination for a salad over the napoleon."
He used four of his five pantry ingredients: lemon, avocado, pomegranate molasses and truffle oil.
There's a lot of complexity of flavors in the dish, Rowe noted, adding "Taking simple ingredients and getting a lot of complexity out of them is what I like to do."
This dish, created by Kris Rowe, took first place at the recent BEAT Chef competition. Makes 4 appetizers.
1 Eight Ball zucchini (8 thin slices)
¼ pound pancetta, large dice
1 ripe peach sliced into large chunks
1 bunch scallions diced
4 quail eggs (optional)
1 tablespoon local honey
2 ounces goat cheese
Juice from ½ lemon
Pomegranate molasses (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil
Render pancetta until crispy. Remove from heat and strain, reserving fat.
Over high heat quickly sauté the zucchini slices in pancetta fat until soft, remove and cool. Return pancetta to the pan and sauté with diced scallions until soft. Quickly toss in peaches and set aside
On first slice of zucchini, place ½ ounce of goat cheese and drizzle with honey. Top with thinly sliced avocado and peach salad. Put second slice of zucchini on top and drizzle with lemon juice and olive oil. If using quail eggs for garnish, quickly sauté egg to preferred temperature and place on top of zucchini. Drizzle dish with pomegranate molasses (available in specialty food shops). Season to taste.