Last night I judged the University of Vermont's Battle of the Campus Chefs for the third year in a row. As I was leaving work, one colleague asked if I was going to be tasting Salisbury steak. Such notions are exactly why it's important to me to take time out of my schedule each year to join the fight.
There were days, I'm sure, when university chefs mostly consisted of lunch ladies without much of a palate or concern for quality of ingredients. But that's changed. Now, most chefs at UVM and other universities have culinary school training and impressive resumés.
Why leave restaurants? The soul-wearying stress, for one. Also, many chefs have young families and would like to see them occasionally. College schedules allow that. And once a year, those chefs (with the assistance of UVM club members, such as Slow Food and Engineers Without Borders) get to stut their stuff in one of Vermont's most impressive displays of culinary skill. Seriously.
And last night, the contest was closer than ever.
Among the nine competitors, four had nearly equal scores — at least in my estimation. Though there were some inevitable clunkers, most dishes were not only solidly conceived and prepared, but showcased primarily local ingredients.
One of my favorites that didn't make the judge's top three was a meatloaf made with a trio of local meats, including beef from Vermont Highland Cattle Company, chicken from Misty Knoll Farm and venison from Hollandeer Farm. The lovely latticework of Vermont Smoke & Cure bacon surrounding the loaf was a nice touch, too.
Mustard greens were cooked with tender Champlain Orchard apples, but the highlight of the dish, from Shawn Careau and Robert Goodrich of Harris Millis dining hall, was an exceptionally creamy pile of mashed potatoes topped with an over-easy Maple Meadow Farm egg.
The third place finisher came from Ian Walker and Andrew Machanic of the Marketplace. It was the safest of the top three dishes, but I had trouble stopping myself from eating the whole thing.
And frankly, venturing to cook pork belly is always daring. Fortunately, they knocked this one out of the park — sturdy but melting with each bite. One of the two slabs on my plate was crisped on top, too — perhaps the reason it was the only dish I saved for later after I finished my few judging bites.
Grits cakes were a creamy, nicely salted base to the meat, and both were topped in orange-tomato-poblano jam. As a tangy counterpoint, another sauce, mustard-flecked crème fraiche, gave the dish even more character.
Second place went to a familiar face in the Burlington dining scene. Chris Hechanova, formerly of Big Chile Republic, made a symbiotic team with chef Adam Walker, also of Redstone Unlimited Dining.
Their deconstructed take on Korean street food would have thrilled at any fine dining restaurant.
Chunks of sous-vide Vermont Family Farm pork belly were like delectable ribs without the bone.
Shiitake mushroom ice cream got doses of both sweetness and spice from gochujang (Korean hot sauce). Ramp mayonnaise made an unlikely but delicious savory sundae when combined with the ice cream and sheets of fried nori. Pickled cucumbers in gelatin were delicious, too. Not all of the elements fit in the steamed buns provided for wrapping, but damn it, I tried.
Cook Commons pulled out the molecular stops again this year to finally capture the title. Last year, chef Timothy Kingzett and his team (including chefs Anthony Perrault and Alex Marko) came in second with an eggplant involtini with balsamic pearls.
This year "Mènage à Trois with Corn" was hard to ignore. A ball of Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery chèvre was rolled in Nitty Gritty Grain Company cornmeal and fried, then served in Cold Hollow Cider gastrique, but that was the weakest of the three tasters. A corn and vanilla milkshake with bacon foam (really more of a cream) was an uncommon treat that lay somewhere between sweet and savory.
But the third of the dish that likely cemented the team the win was a pair of what appeared to be scallops. In fact they were rounds of powerfully flavored corn gelée, served over caramelized onions. A topping of maple-balsamic syrup and scallion oil lent both the gelée and accompanying discs of polenta a big shot of taste, but the best surprise came in the form of a smoky, herbaceous bacon brittle.
It's unlikely that you could get such a dish for $30 in Vermont. But at Battle of the Campus Chefs, guests tried that and all the others for an entrance fee of $7 ($5 for students). Not a bad deal, if you can wait a year.
Alice Eats is a weekly blog feature devoted to reviewing restaurants where diners can get a meal for two for less than $35. Got a restaurant you'd love to see featured? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.