Iron Chef Redding: Delicious Contest Infused Fun into Fundraising

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It’s true that just one chef won the first Iron Chef Redding competition Saturday, but I hesitate to put it that way, lest it lead to the unfortunate conclusion that the remaining chefs were losers.

Losers? Au contraire, my fellow foodies, especially when one considers that of a possible 112 points, the winning chef garnered 110 points, while the other chefs trailed by one point each, respectively.

All three chefs outdid themselves to the point that throughout the evening I heard people comment that the demonstration inspired everyone to revisit those chefs’ restaurants. I know I felt the same.

You could definitely feel the love for all three chefs, as well as genuine excitement and affection for Iron Chef Redding, a fundraiser and kick-off event to benefit the North Valley Food Co-op, a first for Redding; something long, long overdue.  (If you missed Jim Dyar’s story about the co-op, you can get all the details it here on anewscafe.com. Golly but it’s easy to write with the help of the Internet. Link, link, link.)

The setting was the cavernous space of The North Valley Co-Op, a partnership between the Healthy Lunch & Lifestyle Project, Slow Food Shasta Cascade and Healthy Shasta that joined forces to develop a food cooperative in downtown Redding, scheduled to open in July. Oh happy day.

For a few hours Saturday I nearly forgot I was in Redding. The co-op’s locale has such a hip and urban feel to it, what with its alley-access that led to the first party inside the co-op’s huge, risotto-white, warehouse-wide space, crowded with more than 100 people who quickly bought tickets for the sold-out event.

I would have gone anyway, but I was invited as a judge for the Iron Chef Redding’s cooking competition between Redding chefs Cal DeMercurio of Rivers Restaurant, Che Stedman of Moonstone Bistro, and Wes Matthews of Market St. Steakhouse .

My fellow judges were Shasta County District Attorney  Jerry Benito, Shasta College Culinary Arts Director Brad Peters, and the evening’s mystery judge, Ann Webber, an excellent cook in her own right, as well as a business woman with Infinite Designs in Redding. (Photo below.)

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Ann Webber, one of four Iron Chef Redding judges, pauses between bites to determine how she’ll rate each chef’s plate during Saturday’s North Valley Co-op fundraiser.

Webber’s daughters were the high bidders on their mother’s behalf, and presented her the honor of being a judge as their gift to her.

When DeMercurio, Matthews and Stedman walked from the Placer Street alley through the theatrical fog into the event’s dining room, the party-goers were clearly cheering for all three chefs.

Patterned after the Food Network’s “Iron Chef”, the first “Iron Chef Redding” fundraiser and membership kick-off seemed a crowd-pleaser, though the evening did have some glitches, such as trouble with the sound system that really tested the performance experience of emcee Robert Soffian, who maintained a witty dialogue throughout the evening, despite a pair of speakers that crashed to the floor (at different times), and microphones that seemed to have minds of their own, and the challenge of keeping the audience posted, and talking with the judges and surveying the chefs’ progress. Perhaps the biggest glitch of all was of the electrical nature, when over-loaded kitchen breakers blew periodically, which added yet another layer of pressure to the contest when blenders, food processors, a trio of stoves, ovens and deep-fryers suddenly went dark, only to come alive again. No pressure there, fellas.

Surrrre.

I know what some of you may be thinking; that judging a cooking competition between three of Redding’s top chefs is a pretty cushy job, right? Poor judges. Somebody call us a waambulance.

I’m here to tell you that being a food competition judge is not the purely decadent fun you might imagine, but extremely difficult, stressful (OK, and delicious) work.

We judges observed these three excellent cooks surrounded by their helpers. We knew that each one wanted to win very badly. Chefs have egos, too, you know.

We were also aware of the incredible sacrifice each chef made to be there that night. They walked away from their restaurants and brought their staff to join them for an unpaid Saturday night in the peak of a recession, all for a worthy community cause.

The chefs were given the option to feed the crowd, or not, although we judges were told to not take the crowd feedings into consideration. Rather, we were there solely to judge one plate presented by each of the three chefs.

They had 90 minutes to do all their cooking from scratch from all local ingredients, including cheeses, cream, wine and produce. Oh, and the two secret ingredients, line-caught ahi tuna and London broil beef from Prather Ranch.

This was a tricky ingredient match, because it forced a sort of surf-and-turf connection, one way or another.

Three categories each had a potential of 10 points for each chef: Presentation, Taste/Flavor and Creativity.

As jazzed as I was before the contest, I had a sudden change of heart as soon as all three chefs’ plates were placed before us:

I changed my mind. I didn’t want to judge. Each plate looked and smelled spectacular. I wanted to give them all first-place ribbons, enjoy what they’d prepared, have some wine and call it a great night.

But it’s not called the Bleeding-Heart Fluffy Chef contest, but the Iron Chef. The contest scoring by us judges began in a solitary kind of way, with each judge marking his and her own papers, without input from each other (aside from occasional eye-rolling and exclamations of Oh My God). Amazingly, although I never knew exactly how each of my fellow judges scored, the point spread only varied by two points from the first place to third.

It seemed an impossible choice, made even more difficult because of the incredible differences between the three men’s dishes.

We knew the plates as A, B, and C. However, we’d watched the cooking progress for more than an hour. From our front-row table we could easily identify some dishes’ creators from kitchen clues, such as we saw Matthew’s staff making pasta dough, and we noticed DeMercurio’s staff pushing the beef through a meat grinder attachment, and we saw Stedman carefully cutting cheese triangles.

For what it’s worth, I gave each chef at least one 10 point score. I gave DeMercurio 10 points for creativity for his plate that obviously took the Asain theme and ran with it, probably with the introduction of ahi tuna as one of the secret ingredients.

DeMercurio made “dragons” of extremely thin, deep fried dough, that was also formed into a fortune cookie shape, and held in a spring-roll fashion the ground beef mixture. (See photo, below.)

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Chef Cal DeMercurio of Rivers Restaurant created an Asian-inspired plate that married the ahi tuna with ground London broil, complete with “dragons” on top and a wasabi sauce below.

I gave Stedman 10 points for his plate presentation, which was absolutely gorgeous, in a modern French sort of way; a very pretty, clean and colorful arrangement that included a wedge of grilled ahi, bookended by rare, tender beef atop a crudeti, topped with a perfectly poached tiny egg, artfully arranged in a way that reminded everyone that yes, we do eat with our eyes first. (Photo below.)

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Chef Che Stedman of Moonstone Bistro created an artistically understated, yet creatively colorful plate that pleased both the eye and the palate.

Last, I gave Matthews 10 points for taste, based upon his plate that seemed to read from left to right in complexity and power. It moved from mild to strong, starting with greens and sliced oranges, moving onto to seared, sliced, extremely rare ahi, which was bridged by ravioli heavily laced with herbs, leading finally to the pounded, thinly sliced beef upon a drop-dead delicious wine reduction. (Photo below.)

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Chef Wes Matthews of Market St. Steakhouse won the Iron Chef Redding competition with this plate that began with sliced oranges over fresh greens that led to perfectly seared, thinly sliced ahi, followed by an herbed ravioli, finished with rare, tender thin slices of beef accompanied by a wine reduction to write home about.

Matthews won, in a dark-horse kind of way. For one thing, this was his first cooking competition, one in which he was pitted against two men renowned for their culinary pedigrees and awards.

On the other hand, it’s worth mentioning that Matthews learned to cook at his parents’ various restaurants over the years, from Chocolate de Nannette and Bry’s Catering to Mr. Natural. Matthews, who recently bought and reopened the popular Senor Rosa’s Mexican restaurant on Eureka Way in Redding, was the youngest of the Iron Chef competitors, and undoubtedly the one chef with probably the least professional training.

When Matthews’ name was announced as the winner, he looked about as surprised at the news as we judges were.

His father, Bryan Matthews, a long-time Redding restaurateur and caterer who was also on the younger Matthew’s cooking team, looked absolutely as proud as a father could be of his son. (Wes is on the right.)

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Chef Bryan Matthews, left, said he couldn’t have felt more proud of son Chef Wes Matthews for winning the Iron Chef Redding contest.

Mother Nancy Matthews wept with joy.

Following the announcement DeMercurio demonstrated class and grace when he took the microphone, congratulated Matthews, then spoke highly of the young man’s culinary climb from a boy to man. Then DeMecurio shook each judge’s hand, and thanked us.

Stedman looked stunned, and I must say, I shared his shock. I knew how I had scored each chef, but even so, I would have predicted him as the winner. Stedman’s a talented young chef, a high-energy, passionate showman who cooks way outside of the box. Not to mention that he clearly wanted to win. And he slammed out hundreds of plates of samples for the audience, even though he knew he’d gain no points for doing so. Finally, judging by the applause when the trio of chefs entered the room, Stedman had more vocal supporters on board.

But I also thought DeMecurio would win, too. After all, he’s a gold-medal Olympic chef winner. He’s cool as sorbet under pressure. He cooks confidently and quietly. He’s probably cooked longer than any of the competitors. For decades DeMercurio’s name has been associated with fine dining and creative, experienced cooking.

Either way, a winner was chosen, and, to nearly everyone’s surprise, it was Wes Matthews.

But really, everyone there was a winner. We were all there for the birth of the Co-Op, the most delicious idea of all.

Photos by Jeanette Ernst and Doni Greenberg.

doni-new-mugIndependent online journalist Doni Greenberg founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Greenberg was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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