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What was it like?

Holy shumoly!  Cooking against the clock and three formidable competitors…my skillet was searing hot and ready to get to work at Chester County Restaurant Festival’s Cook-Off.

I remember when Mary Bigham, founder of The Town Dish and host of Eat, Drink and Meet Mary on WCHE1520AM Fridays at 12:15, asked me to be one of the chefs participating in the cook off.  Can’t deny it, I was a little nervous, but a lot of excited.  Over the last several years I have been working with top chefs sharpening my culinary skills and developing menus and recipes for the cooking classes I am now teaching.   Why not cook-off what I got, I felt up to the challenge.  Here’s a pre-event interview.

And then, the week before set in.  The mandatory ingredients were announced.  Salmon from Gadeleto’s Seafood Market – no problem, venison from the Country Butcher Fine Foods Market – okay, I’m not a big meat eater, and have limited experiences with venison, and Vera Pasta (for dessert!) – hmmm.   I created, tested, practiced, made changes and tried again.  But, nothing was like show time.

Anyone who has done an event like this knows you have to be prepared for everything, and you can never be prepared enough.  Two big gray plastic bins strategically filled with pans, utensils and spices and a cooler full of groceries and me, arrived at the Restaurant Festival scene.  Did I get everything?  The cord to the hot pot, tongs, the oranges for the venison…a frantic moment of re-checking my checklist (all in vain)…my heart raced.

But then, what was the point?

CC Libby LaughingThe point was to have fun. Think on my feet like all innovative cooks do.  Relax and let my creative style express itself in artistically presented dishes that tasted delicious…in the short allotment of time.   Okay.  Fun – no problem.  Everything else – I would just have to trust my planning and adapt to what ever might happen.

Oh, did I say there would be surprise ingredients that could be used for extra points?

Mary Bigham of The Town Dish kicks off the event.

Mary Bigham of The Town Dish kicks off the event.

On the steps of the old courthouse, music was playing and the event was kicking off to a crowed of food enthusiasts, a good chunk of which were my supporters.  (Thanks, guys!!!!  It really meant a lot to me.)  Three judges sat poised – Kim Knipe of Chester County Hospital, veteran three time first place winner now judge, Jonathan Amann of Amani’s BYO Downingtown and Amy Strauss, Editor-in-Chief of The Town Dish.  The rules were read, and the secret ingredients were announced…honey, garlic honey from Swarmbustin’ Honey and farm fresh eggs.  Thank goodness, no bubble gum!

It was me, Andrew Deery – Professional Chef of Majolica, Tim Lazansky – Professional Chef of West Chester Golf and Country Club (West Chester) and David Wassel  – Professional Chef of Winner’s Circle Sports Grille and Riverstone Café (Exton).  View more details here.

Appetizer: salmon two ways

Appetizer: salmon two ways

And before I knew it, the clock had started.  And my first dish was under construction.  Asian salmon tartar with garlic, sweet soy, grated ginger, scallions, minced jalapeño pepper, cilantro, roasted sesame seed oil and black and white sesame seeds, topped with a crispy wonton, …a Bibb lettuce wrap of crispy rice noodles, red cabbage, Thai basil and crispy salmon skin… and a sweet honey, sour pepper dipping sauce topped with black and white sesame seeds…the composition was plated three times, just in the “3,” “2,” “1” nick of time.

CC Libby and mary BighamWhew!  One down.  But why did my skillet know work to crisp the salmon skin?  And my oil not get hot enough to crisp the wonton?  The equipment worked great in practice…or was that all theory.  Luckily, a fryer and stove was ready for use.  But how would this affect my next dish?

And the clock started.  I trimmed the silver skin off the venison and quickly began coating and stuffing it with a rub of fresh rosemary, ground juniper, orange zest and garlic.  Into the middle I added a layer of dried currents salt and pepper and secured it closed with toothpicks.  Into the skillet it went with a sear.  As I began the orange steamed Brussels sprouts, the sizzle died down to a fizzle.

What?  I checked the clock.  My electricity and the clock were out!

Plan B.  The stove.  One of my posts was still coated with salmon oil from the dish before…the burner on the stove wouldn’t light….panic struck.  And before I could fail, Chef Jonathan Amann the JUDGE, came over and was getting my pot washed.  Chef Andrew Deery of Mejolica in Phoenixville and MY COMPETITION (and soon to be the “Best Chef in Chester County”) was lighting my burner.  I was humbled to finish my dish.  Soon the electricity was restored and the clock set to the correct remaining time and again, three plates were made.

After that, I felt I had experienced it all, which was sweet relief for a sweet finish.

Dessert: pear and pecorino ravioli

Dessert: pear and pecorino ravioli

Four chefs ran for their pasta of choice – ricotta gnocchi, sheet pasta, rigatoni or gemelli.  I had practiced all weekend with the gnocchi, but just couldn’t get the right flavors to pop in an interesting way. At the last minute, I tabled the gnocchi for raviolis filled with Pecorino Romano, pear and mascarpone cheese, on a cranberry-vanilla-pear sauce and chopped walnuts.  Yummm.

CC third placeA lightly sweet finish it was.  I place third.  For a first time competition like this, and in light of technical difficulties, I was delighted!

All the winners.

All the winners.