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And the Top Chef Is...


Published August 9, 2011 at 5:51 p.m.

"Rabbit is a very subtle meat."

So observed Sean Buchanan last night as he watched his Vermont cheffing compatriots dash around the room during the Fifth Annual Top Chef of the Champlain Valley, held last night at the University of Vermont. Rabbit was the pièce de résistance of the night, and its secret ingredient was confounding: balsamic vinegar, aged in Vermont. 

Chef Donnell Collins of Leunig's Bistro (and her colleagues) were in the house defending her title against challengers Shawn Calley (executive chef at Amuse at the Essex Resort and Spa), and Matt Birong (owner and executive chef at Vergennes' 3 Squares Cafe).

Once the particulars were announced, the chefs and their teams grabbed edibles from a long, loaded banquet table, dicing and wrapping and sauteéing in front of a rowdy crew of 400 onlookers, who were hopped up on locally donated apps such as stuffed mushrooms and veggie-pesto empanadas. The chefs had but 50 minutes to put together a winning appetizer and entreé. For most in the crowd, it was a rare glimpse into the almost balletic teamwork inside restaurant kitchens each night.

In the final moments, Collins sauteéd fresh gnocchi and Birong drizzled a balsamic vinaigrette across his plates. In the end, though, top prize went to Calley and team's carrot soup with balsamic reduction, rabbit quenelles and fried basil, as well as rabbit three ways — livers with Dijon sauce and kohlrabi slaw, seared rabbit loin with balsamic sauce and braised kale, and rabbit ravioli with goat cheese and spinach served on balsamic/blueberry crème fraiche with dusted pistachios. They seemed pretty chuffed about it, too (see photo at right).

“It’s really an honor to be voted Top Chef,” writes Calley in an email. “And I’m very proud of my teammates, master chef Arnd Sievers and chef Jean-Luc Matecat, for doing such a phenomenal job. I wanted to create something that not only shows my passion for food but also reflects what we’re bringing to the area with Amuse. Burlington has never seen a restaurant like this before; it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Amuse opens next week.

Folks at CVAA, which provides services for seniors in northwestern Vermont, reckon the event (and silent auction) raised at least $25,000. Despite the hard and fast competition, the chefs looked like they had a blast — and, from the looks of their dishes, it's worth seeking out a meal from each and every one.

Photos courtesy of The Essex Resort & Spa