Editor’s Note: The Wilson School District no longer hosts an Iron Chef competition. The last was in 2019.

The Wilson Education Foundation held its second annual Wilson Iron Chef competition on Sunday, March 22. Berks County Eats was there among the sold out crowd of more than 800 hungry patrons, all of whom got to sample food from more than 40 vendors and enjoy a friendly, but intense, culinary competition.

Vendor Row

The doors opened at 1 p.m. and hundreds of people had poured in to the Wilson High School gym by the time I arrived a few minutes later. For the first two hours, vendor lane was open with more than 40 area restaurants and food businesses offering free samples of food and drinks.

sample of cannoli in a small cup

As soon as I walked in the door, I was greeted by a server from Paolo’s Restaurant & Bar on Lancaster Avenue with an inviting dessert. It was the same mini pie shell and cream as last year, this time with chocolate chips (because, why not?)

garlic knot and tasting of stromboli

At the first booth, Paolo’s was handing out samples of a pair of their dinner favorites: stromboli and garlic knots. I only wish they could have brought just a little sauce for the ham and cheese stromboli.

blue cup with vanilla shave ice

Eating dessert first is just something that seems to happen at Iron Chef as the next stand along the way belonged to Pat’s Hawaiian Shave Ice. The vanilla flavor tasted just like the vanilla twin pops I used to eat as a kid.

small sample cup of mustard with three pretzel sticks

Next in line was Pilsudski Polish Style Mustard with samples of mustard, mustard with horseradish, and horseradish. I went for the mustard-horseradish mix, and that was more than strong enough for me.

table with three varieties of smoothies in sample-size cups

Thankfully the perk-up truck was there with some smoothies to help calm the taste buds. I had their banana smoothie once before at the VF Outlet Food Truck Festival, and was more than happy to enjoy it once again.

small cup of corn chowder

The Penn Werner Hotel, one of the participants in the actual Iron Chef competition, kept it simple with a tasty corn chowder at its booth.

small plate with a meatball, small slice of Italian bread, and a lice of sausage in sauce with a toothpick inside

In a repeat of last year, Salino’s once again brought along some of its Italian specialties including meatballs and sausage in tomato sauce.

half a burrito in foil sitting in a cup

Moe’s Southwest Grille was giving out some of the largest portions of anyone with 1/2 beef burritos up for grabs. As much as I love Moe’s, I had to refrain from eating the whole thing and ruining my appetite for the rest of the day.

three small tasting cups, one with popcorn with seasoning, one with pulled pork and one with a piece of a crepe

Velata Kitchen Products had a variety available at their stand. Popcorn was seasoned with its brand of seasoning mix, pulled pork with Velata’s barbecue sauce, and crepes made with one of the company’s crepe makers were all available as the friendly staff talked about Velata’s home parties.

pulled pork taco with coleslaw

One of the best things I had while touring vendor lane was the pulled pork taco from Station House Grille. It was topped with the restaurant’s signature slaw, with a creaminess that really complimented the pork.

black plate with a meatball with a black fork sticking in it

Another newcomer at this year’s Iron Chef was Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza who brought along samples of both their baked wings and meatballs. The meatball was a lot bigger than it looked so I decided to pass on the wings (and I had tried both at the restaurant a few weeks ago and loved everything I had).

man cooking smash burgers on a small griddle

The most impressive stand on vendor row had to be Elevation Burger, who actually sent a cook to grill sliders to order. Unfortunately, this also had the effect of holding up the line, which because of placement, was actually two lines coming together. The burger was good (a little greasier than what it would probably be at the restaurant), but I can’t say that it was worth the wait.

half a hot dog on a bun

If you’re going to have a burger, you might as well have a hot dog too. The Reading Fightins’ were handing out half-portions of their famous ballpark hot dogs, still one of my favorite ballpark snacks.

broken piece of biscotti topped with rainbow sprinkles

Offering slightly smaller samples, Anita’s Biscottis was back with samples of their delicious Italian cookies.

two small tasting cups - one with pulled pork and one with chili

East-West Kitchen, a Fairgrounds Farmers Market stand specializing in Asian and American dishes, had samples of some delicious chili and pulled pork with Asian barbecue sauce.

black plate with a small helping of pulled pork topped with sauce and a cup of baked beans

More pulled pork was available from Dickey’s Barbecue, one of the newcomers to Berks County, which also offered samples of their ham and baked beans, as well as several of their sauces.

Unfortunately I couldn’t make it to every stand as it was just too full (both the lines and my stomach). Other vendors included Subway, Edible Arrangements, Isaac’s Famous Grilled Sandwiches, Slush Puppie, Mays Sandwich Shop, New York Bagelry, Mamas Pizza, Outback Steakhouse, the Pampered Chef and Sweet Ride Ice Cream.

People’s Choice

The People’s Choice competition is probably my favorite part of the Iron Chef event. Fans got to choose their favorite dish from nine area restaurants, all of whom had to use the same ingredient: sweet potatoes.

clear plat with almond crusting chicken, fruit, bean sprouts and sweet potato puree with a cup of lemonade

The Crowne Plaza had the most visually appealing spread with sweet potato puree, sweet potato crusted almond chicken, a balsamic salad and sweet potato-infused lemonade. Everything was amazing (even the lemonade) except the salad, which really didn’t need to be there in the first place.

cup of sweet potato dip with spiced kettle chips

Ganly’s went with an opposite approach and kept things simple with an Asian sweet potato dip with five-spice kettle chips. It was a very good dip (the chips were phenomenal) but it was always going to be hard to compare it to the other restaurants that went bigger.

black shelf with four rows of sweet potato disks topped with jalapeno and cream

The Hitching Post went really small, offering sweet potato bites: a sweet potato disc with roasted jalapeno and cilantro crema, and finshed with crispy bacon crumbles and chives. It packed a lot of punch for such a small dish, but it was a literal “bite” as it was gone in a hurry.

clear square cup filled with sweet potato soup topped with cream and herbs

One of the best items I tried all day was Dans at Green Hills “famous” sweet potato soup. It had lots of flavor, a great texture (with little diced sweet potatoes still inside) and a nice finish from the sour cream and chives on top.

sweet potato gnocchi topped with lobster Newburg sauce

Adelphia Seafood, who won the People’s Choice at the Hamburg Iron Chef earlier this year, brought sweet potato gnocchi in a lobster Newberg sauce. I loved the gnocchi, but I am just not a lobster fan (I know I am in the minority).

cup of sweet potato corn chowder on a plate with potato beer bread

Canal Street Pub brought a pair of items: sweet potato corn chowder and sweet potato beer bread. The chowder was good, but wasn’t quite on the same level as Dan’s. The beer bread was also good, but I didn’t taste much sweet potato in it.

slider with pulled pork and coleslaw

The Tavern on Penn brought some pulled pork sliders with pickled slaw and sweet potato. I loved the sandwich, but I really couldn’t taste the sweet potato through the rest of the ingredients.

black plate with sweet potato flan, a pecan and a dollop of whipped cream

Another one of my favorites from the day was the sweet potato flan from Bernville Eagle Hotel. The flan was topped in bourbon-maple butter sauce with a candied pecan. It was great to get a sweet dish among all of the savory choices, and it really delivered a lot of flavor for such a small dish.

blurry picture of a salmon fritter

The final entrant into the People’s Choice competition was Beverly Hills Tavern with sweet potato encrusted salmon fritters. I’m not a seafood guy, but I loved the sweet potato crust. If this was chicken, I probably would have fallen in love with this dish, especially with the brown butter and pumpkin sage sauce.

My vote went to Dan’s at Green Hills, but it was a tough choice between Dan’s, Crowne Plaza and Bernville Eagle Hotel. Dan’s took home the top spot with Crowne Plaza second, meaning those two restaurants will be competing in next year’s Iron Chef.

Iron Chef Competition

The main event of the day was the Iron Chef cooking competition which pitted three of the area’s top chefs against each other in a 35-minute battle. The three chefs who competed were Jason Hook of H2O Kitchen, Raffale Cirandine of G.N.A. Ristorante, and defending champion David Shefter of the Penn Werner Hotel.

big screen showing the words "secret ingredient #4" with a picture of gummi worms

The chefs all had to prepare a dish and side using four secret ingredients: turkey tenderloins, quinoa, patty pan squash and the real kicker, gummy worms.

three teams compete on stage in a cooking competition beneath the logo of a bulldog

After 35 minutes of cooking, Chef Cirandine did not have his dish completely plated, which resulted in a points penalty on his final judging. That essentially left just two chefs with a chance to win, with Chef Jason Hook claiming the top prize.

That means that Jason Hook will compete next year against the chefs from Dan’s at Green Hills and the Crowne Plaza during the third annual Wilson Iron Chef competition, scheduled for next March.

If you were one of the more than 800 people in attendance, what was the favorite thing you tried? What did you think of the competition? Tell us in the comments section below.

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