This past Saturday the Saratoga Farmers Market held its fourth annual Iron Chef Competition pitting defending champion Max London of Max London’s restaurant against challenger Bryan Walsh of One Caroline Street Bistro. The actual competition is actually more of a mash-up of two popular Food Network shows – Iron Chef America and Chopped!. The contestants get a limited time to prepare their dishes. Each is given a market basket of ingredients that they must use, plus an additional $30 of market money that they can use to supplement their larder with additional farmers market ingredients. Additionally, they can bring a limited amount of pantry items with them to the cook-off.
This year’s market basket contained fish (porgies and skate) from Pura Vida Fisheries, beef sausages from M&A Farm, fresh ginger from Kilpatrick Family Farm and Swiss Chard from Pleasant Valley Farm. By virtue of a random drawing, Max London started first.
A major new twist to this year’s competition was a major upgrade in equipment. Tom Thibault and Adirondack Appliance donated the use of two EVO flat top gas grills. These were wonders to behold. Each one had a central burner and a separate outside ring burner so that there could be different heating zones on the grill. The chefs also had the capability of adding smoke to their foods using special cartridges containing specific wood sawdust. With a hole poked in the top of the cartridge, it needed to be placed on the hot grill to begin smoking. With a wire rack and a cover, there was near instant smoke to add to any ingredient.
With a small saucepan on the grill, London started by infusing ginger slices in maple syrup purchased at the market. He moved on to slicing eggplant and cutting up chard, putting the stems in a quick pickling juice. With the eggplant slices cooking on the flattop, he sliced some of the sausage and got that cooking too.
Having started his shopping spree fifteen minutes after London, Chef Walsh also started cooking fifteen minutes after London, staggering the timing so the judges wouldn’t be bombarded with all the food all at once. One of the first things Walsh did was get some apple slices smoking on top of the flat-top using the smokers described above.
With Walsh smoking apples, London added flatbreads to cook on top of the spacious grill and began organizing his plating. As some of his products started finishing he cooked his chard, some shiitake mushrooms and finally his fish and French toast. He had organized and prepared three dishes, the maximum allowed.
Chef Walsh would do two dishes. He started cooking Adirondack blue potatoes, crumbling and cooking the hearts of the beef sausages, thin slicing Cacciota cheese from Dancing Ewe Farm and preparing his chard. He finished by pan-searing both porgy and skate and creating a Beurre Blanc sauce for the fish.
With time up, Max London had cleanly prepared three different dishes with one plate for each of the judges, who included local food writer, activist and founder of The Salem Courthouse Al Fresco Dinner, Annette Nielsen, Friends of the saratoga Farmers Market Founding member Eric Lovenduski and yours truly. Judging would be based upon an average score of all the chefs dishes across three different categories. Ten points were available for taste, 5 for originality and another five for presentation. We each received a plate of London’s first course, an imaginative and quite tasty pita-style sandwich of the grilled pizza-dough flatbread with a spicy orange aioli, grilled eggplant, grilled beef sausage and cilantro and mint. The flavors meshed well and the texture of the bread was simply fantastic – both crunchy and chewy.
With each judge making individual scoring, we moved on to the next dish. London used only the porgy as the central protein, having grilled them beautifully on the EVO. The fish lay atop a flavorful composition of gingery chard leaves and shiitake mushrooms and underneath the quick pickled chard stems. The dish was extremely well balanced and delicious.
London finished with French toast. Had it been ordinary French toast, the strategy might have back-fired, but his use of the ginger-infused maple syrup, Mrs. London’s baguette, market apples and apple sauce as well as some perfect ginger slices, gave this a depth that we reluctantly moved away from to save some appetite for the challenger’s food.
London’s showing was strong and would be tough to beat, but we looked forward to Chef Walsh’s creations eagerly. He started with a bruschetta with the smoked apples, crumbled grilled sausage, thinly sliced cacciota cheese, fresh chives and a glaze of fig vin cotta and apple cider reduced with shallots and herbs. Our eagerness was rewarded. Though the presentation was simple, this was a remarkable bruschetta. The blending of flavors and textures was superb with the smoked apples in particular adding great nuances of sweetness, tartness and smokiness. The battle was on!
Walsh’s second dish was quite good, but left a little room for improvement. The fish was particularly good earning extra points for using both the porgy and the skate and using them well. They were pan-fried and delicious and served draping the blue potatoes. The beurre blanc, while tasty was supposed to have been a ginger beurre blanc, however, the flavor of ginger was faint at most. The chard, covering the fish, while well cooked was one-dimensional and the weakest part of the dish. Overall, the dish was quite good, but it wasn’t sufficient to overcome London’s tour-de-force presentation.
The air of the excitement around the event was aided by the extremely capable emceeing of Albany Times Union Food Editor, Steve Barnes and the coverage of local newspapers like The Saratogian and the live broadcasting of Saratoga 101.3.
A repeat winner, Max London will defend his crown again next year. With another victory, he will be retired into the pantheon of Saratoga Farmers Market Iron Chefs! Also returning next year will be the EVO grills. Tom Thibeault promised to provide them again next year as well as adding some Big Green Egg grills! I’m already salivating!