Ever watch those shows like Iron Chef and envied the judges? Have you thought that you’d have something smart to say about dishes cooked up in a short span of time with limited (and required) ingredients? Think you’ve got what it takes to judge a food competition? Well, for the next several weeks, the dream can be achieved—on a local level, of course. But the competition over at the Mason Dixon Master Chef Tournament is just as heated as the televised stuff—and being just a few feet away from the chefs as they dice, sauté, and infuse milk with Cap’n Crunch (yes, that happened) easily tops any at-home viewing experience.
I was lucky enough to attend the tournament on Greek night earlier this month. Rather than togas and sorority pledging, that meant that two competing chefs were expected to each create a three-course Greek meal, using a few of the culture’s traditional ingredients—lamb, kalamata olives, grape leaves, and orzo. Nothing too wild-cardy there, but using those ingredients to create dishes that were creative and contemporary while reflecting the traditional values of Greek cuisine is where the challenge lay.
The competitors on the evening were Josh Handel of Josh Handel’s Catering & Personal Chef Service and Christopher Lewis of the Iron Bridge Wine Company. The woman across from me (an old friend of Josh Handel’s, to be fair) likened the pairing to David and Goliath: small Baltimore-native upstart catering company vs. a chef from a well known restaurant with two locations dangerously close to D.C. An accurate description or not, it went well with the tension and suspense of the evening. After all, even if it’s all in good fun, anyone who’s seen the inside of a commercial kitchen knows that for serious chefs, food is no laughing matter, and this throw down was serious business.
The evening begins with a casual happy hour, and Mari Luna—where the competition is held—is known for its margaritas and sangria, so most of my fellow audience judges indulged while we waited for things to heat up. While we enjoyed complimentary hors d’oeuvres and half-priced drinks, the chefs had 30-minutes to complete all of their cold prep for the evening. That means all of the work that doesn’t involve heat. In thirty minutes. Over my sangria I saw strawberries go from whole to slivered in seconds. Moments later, we were deafened by the unabashed pounding of a meat tenderizer. This, we were told, was particularly important since the cut of lamb that night was one that’s traditionally braised for hours before serving because it’s so tough—and this was not time that our chefs had.
Local food impresario Jerry Pellegrino (of Corks and Waterfront Kitchen) presided over the evening, microphone in hand, checking in with chefs and giving we lay-people the inside scoop on correct techniques. And since the chefs and their kitchens are set up right in the middle of the floor, guests are encouraged to come up close to watch their every move. As friendly as they looked, it was hard to imagine bombarding these chefs with questions. Sure, I took no time getting right up and sticking my nose in the action, but to interrupt with, “I’m sure that knife is real sharp, and that pan dangerously hot, and you’ve only got forty more minutes to plate three gourmet courses, but can you tell me what you’re gonna do with that weird root thingy?” seemed a bit invasive.
Making the competition possible for each chef is their team. Each chef gets to bring with them a sous chef and an assistant. Pellegrino defined the roles for us saying that the sous chef dealt with most of the tedious stuff, and the assistant pretty much cleans up behind everyone and hands people tools. If all goes well, the three team members move around their makeshift kitchens in what appears to the outsider as a finely choreographed ballet. But ballet aside, it was clear that these guys were working hard. Sure they do this for a living, but as Karen Folkart of Mason Dixon pointed out, “The amount of food, and the quality they create in two hours is amazing. And you have to remember, they’re not in their own kitchens.” This became a serious reality once hour two started and the chefs turned their heat on. A few minutes into cooking, Josh Handel’s team began to have power issues with their electric burners. The stress on the chef’s face was clear, but with the clock ticking, all they could do was keep on with the established plan—adjusting as best they could. My new acquaintance across the table joked that perhaps the malfunctioning burners we an act of sabotage—not that we needed any kind of speculation to increase the drama. As the restaurant filled with the smells of six different courses that we’d soon get to sink our teeth into, the chefs begged the clock to move slower; but for us, the audience judges, it couldn’t move fast enough. Those dishes smelled too good to keep waiting.
As we counted down together the final seconds of the competition, Christopher Lewis’s team coolly set out their dishes—with a few seconds to spare for finishing touches and final primping. Josh Handel’s team used every last millisecond, barely getting the complicated (but delicious) dessert out in the nick of time. The clock stopped and Jerry Pellegrino made sure we all got a good look at the dishes before the three professional judges had at them. We rated each meal on the judging cards we’d been given—discussing with our fellow diners how we thought they stacked up in terms of presentation and creativity. Then the professional judges began tasting one by one and offered their thoughts. As servers brought our table samples of the prepared dishes, my fellow audience judges and I weighed in, too. Sure, we listened to what the “real” judges had to say, but it was almost more fun discussing our opinions with our fellow guests. When one woman at my table said she thought the meat was a bit too gristly, someone else piped up saying that the chefs couldn’t help the cut of meat they were given. But no, no, I protested. Didn’t you see what the other team did? The sous chef on the other team spent a full eight minutes trimming the fat off the cut to avoid such a thing. But before we could reach a consensus, the next dish arrived and we dove into it.
In the end, Christopher Lewis of Iron Bridge (the Goliath, according to my table-mate) triumphed. Several of us admitted to each other that we’d privately hoped Josh Handel would win; his tempura grape leaves and pistachio brittle were pretty out of this world—and his underdog-ness from the beginning was just impossible not to root for. But by the end of the evening, spirits were so high all around that the suspense and competition of just an hour earlier seemed to fall away. It felt like the moments after a great sporting event—it’s not about winning or losing, but about the excitement, the enthusiasm, and watching people perform amazing feats of skill and teamwork. Only in this case, they fed us orzo risotto.
The Mason Dixon Master Chef Tournament continues through August 27 and takes place at Mari Luna Bistro at 1225 Cathedral Street in Baltimore. For tickets and information, visit www.masondixonmasterchef.com. Ten percent of all ticket sales go to benefit Meals on Wheels.