Brandon, Florida -- It sounded easy enough. An invitation came in from my friend, Chef Dave West of the Rolling Pin Kitchen Emporium, to help judge a chefs' competition.
How tough can that be? After all, I've had something to eat every day of my life. You show up, they roll out some appetizers and entrees, you tell them what you think, and you go home.
Then I find out these people are serious professionals. "Dr. BBQ," or Ray Lampe as he's officially known, has written several books on cooking. Chef Jaden Hair has her own cooking website, SteamyKitchen.com. And me, I still can't make good ribs.
Each chef had seven sous chefs, along with kitchen assistants. The place was organized chaos, but it was entertaining to watch, having 20-plus people preparing my dinner. I was joined by Jeff Houck, the food critic for the Tampa Tribune, and Pam Brown, of the Brandon Chamber of Commerce, both of whom have been down this judging road before. We judged on plating, taste, use of main ingredients (corn, salmon, and melon), and uniqueness.
My first lesson came with Dr. BBQ's appetizer, BBQ and Cornbread Waffles, topped with pulled pork. Now if that's not unique, then I'm not hungry. It was excellent. And I never would have thought to combine BBQ and waffles, but you need to be creative in the kitchen.
My mistake was, I finished it. After all, I was brought up to finish everything on my plate. And this was delicious. But Jeff and Pam quickly told me, there is a lot more food to come... pace yourself... don't finish everything. Otherwise, it'll be time for the main entree, and I'm out trying to walk off all the food I've eaten already.
After that, it only got better. From Chef Jaden's Minced Chicken and Sweet Corn Soup, to Dr. BBQ's Cheesy Avocado Quesadillas and Salsa Salmon Packets, to my personal favorite of the night, Chef Jaden's Herb Crusted Salmon with Thai Basil and Mint Oil. Usually when I see "crusted" on the menu, I run the other way. To me, "crusted" means there's something on top that's overpowering the main dish. Not Jaden's salmon. It was perfect... very subtle, exactly the right temperature, and not overcooked... simply delicious.
And for dessert, Jaden used one of my underrated favorites, tapioca, to make Tapioca Pearls with Sweet Coconut and Honeydew. The Doctor answered with a Melon Martini, a wonderful summer dessert with a little kick.
The voting was close, as it should have been, since all the food was terrific, and I had trouble telling either of these experts that a dish was "too this" or "a little lacking in that."
Chef Jaden wound up winning by a few points. I wound up gaining a few pounds.
But if Chef Dave invites me to the next Chef's Challenge, I'm there with my bib on.
- Click here to see photos from the event, courtesy Jaden Hair.
- Click here to see photos from the event, courtesy Jeff Houck.
Dave Wirth, Tampa Bay's 10 News