For the past three years, I have taken every opportunity to attend Berks County’s two Iron Chef competitions at Wilson and Hamburg School Districts.
Today (November 6) was the sixth annual Iron Chef Hamburg, and another opportunity to sample some great local eats.
One of my favorite parts of these events is the live auction, specifically the bidding for the final judge’s seat. Every year I try, and every year I get out-bid.
I tried again this year. And after bidding up to $360, I finally won.
I was whisked backstage with my fellow judges for a briefing about the scoring and rules of the day. I was, by far, the least qualified of the four who would determine the winner.
We were split into two tables of two. At the first table was Chef Genaro Delillo, chef at the Downtown Lounge in Lebanon and contestant on the current season of Hell’s Kitchen. With him was Chef Brittany Mattison, former contestant on Food Network’s Chopped Teen Challenge, current high school student at Boyertown, and future student at Johnson & Wales University.
Joining me at my table was Gangi E. Cucciuffo, middle school principal in the Fleetwood School District and the son of a classically trained chef who grew up in the food business.
Then there was the food blogger.
The real stars on this day were the three competing chefs: Chef Michael Martino from Melanie’s Medleys and Don’s Food Products, Chef David Shefter, Jr., from the Penn Werner Hotel, and Chef Troy Vance Woytovich from Lake Wynonah Lodge.
One of the coolest parts about being a judge is having the freedom to walk around the stage during the 35-minute competition to watch the chefs in action, ask them questions and get an up-close look at the dishes coming together.
As in many cooking competitions, there were several mandatory ingredients. Each chef had three things that had to go into every plate: fresh sausage, apple butter and Brussels sprouts.
Chef David made the boldest choice, creating sausage tacos with apple butter Fireball whiskey reduction and slaw, with a Brussels sprouts, carrot and onion medley on the side.
No one would ever accuse the Shefter family of underseasoning a dish. I wish the taco had just a little less heat to it, though. While delicious, the sausage was lost and we all felt that he could have substituted any protein in it and it would have been very much the same.
The vegetables added color to the plate, but beyond that, the plating was very simple (tacos just aren’t the prettiest entree) and that inevitably hurt in the final scores.
On the opposite end of the stage, Chef Troy presented a lovely little plate with sausage, pork tenderloin and topped with an apple butter-based sauce atop a bed of Chino Cubano polenta. On the side were pan-seared Brussels sprouts and a pear salad.
Everything was very good. The meat and the sauce went very well together. The sprouts were cooked well. The pear slaw was excellent.
Our biggest criticism was that the Brussels sprouts were just there. They weren’t incorporated into anything and there was little extra done to them. Talking with my fellow judges, we also felt that the tenderloin was unnecessary. Adding a second protein to the plate took away from the sausage, which was the feature ingredient.
Then there was Chef Michael Martino. Chef Michael was the defending champion of the event and appeared every bit the seasoned competition veteran throughout.
While his competitors were at times scattered and rushed, Chef Michael and his sous chef always appeared calm, taking their time to craft what was easily the most beautiful plate that we were presented.
The sausage was in what Chef Michael called Hunter Sauce. It was incredible, transforming the sausage into a dish worthy of a high-end steakhouse. Mushrooms and pearl onions added to the composition.
On the side, we were given a dollop of smashed redskin potatoes that was very nice and an incredible Brussels sprout salad with an incredible vinaigrette.
You may also notice the dusted fork and spoon outlines, made with Porcini mushroom flakes. By not cooking the Brussels sprouts, Chef Michael had extra time to garnish the plate. It just added to the overall experience.
Though it was a close match-up, it was unanimous among the judges that Chef Michael had earned his second consecutive Iron Chef championship. We were split on second place, but Chef Troy earned the runner-up spot with Chef David finishing third.
I thoroughly enjoyed every dish that was presented and wish I could have just sat there all evening and finished them (I came close).
It was the most expensive meal(s) that I have ever had with Berks County Eats but worth every penny. Not only did I get to eat some of the best food that I have ever tried, I got to meet some incredible people (I’ve already promised Chef Genaro that I’ll be making a trip to Lebanon in the near future).
And the money goes to the Hamburg Area Education Foundation. Any time I can give back to local schools, it feels good.
This time, it felt really good. And I feel very full.