A hunk of dark pink tuna in one hand. A curl of pork tenderloin in the other. One hour to make culinary magic, or at least something tasty enough to win over the judges.
This was the challenge a trio of chef teams faced yesterday at the Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center in South Burlington, where Reinhart Food Service held its annual trade show. The hotel’s lower level buzzed with hundreds of visitors checking out a surreal display of canned vegetables, precooked pizza dough and mini cinnamon monkey holes. Upstairs, the chefs assembled on stage with ingredients they had picked up at the show. The chefs charged with creating a tuna-centric appetizer and a pork loin entrée were a pair each from St. Albans’ One Federal and Gypsy Café in Lincoln, N.H.; and one lone figure in white, James Bachand from Greg’s Meat Market in Middlebury.
Seven Days food writer Alice Levitt and I, along with Sarah Tresser of Blodgett Ovens, took our seats at the judging table and watched the chefs sweat and swivel as they chopped peppers, boiled Israeli cous cous, and broke out jars full of secret spices. The smells of sizzling bacon and simmering Brandy wafted through the room as a cameraman tiptoed around the tables.
At about the half-hour mark, just when we thought the cooking would reach a crescendo, Chef James backed away from his table. Before him, a steamer steamed and pork sizzled gently on a portable burner. He simply stood there, snapping on gum and looking sort of Zen. “That pork looks like it might dry out,” I whispered to Sarah, an experienced chef. I was nervous for him, though the MCs seemed impressed. "Now, that's a chef!" one of them bellowed.
At the One Federal table, the two Zacks — sous-chef Zack Lindgren and line cook Zack Thayer — sauteéd mushrooms and dressed salad. The Gypsy Café team fried mashed-potato cakes and reduced a mysterious sauce. Chef James continued to chew gum and cast a casual eye toward his pots and pans.
Trying not to attack the dishes that finally landed on our table was an exercise in extreme restraint. But once we got the go-ahead, the crowd, chefs and MCs dispersed and we settled into quiet assessment. Each dish had its merits: One Federal offered up a velvety tuna tartare alongside a green salad topped with mango, orange bell pepper and fried corn strips. Their browned pork tenderloin was topped with an addictive cream sauce and served alongside a salty pile of sautéed Swiss chard with bacon.
Alice said she “just couldn’t stop eating” the seared tuna from Gypsy Café, though the wasabi-dressed salad that came with it was odd. The potato cakes on Gypsy’s main plate were tasty as far as comfort food goes, but the fiery reduction that accompanied the pork loin drowned out every other flavor on the plate. Chef James’ tuna (pictured) was barely seared, peppery, served on a bed of bok choy, and topped with singed chunks of pineapple. His bok choy was sandy — a big minus — but because he had picked it up at the show, he probably though it had been prewashed. For the main dish, Chef James “schnizteled” his pork, then composed an almost church-picnic-looking plate with some steamed potatoes, chard and cilantro.
In the end, it was those simple plates that won Chef James the trophy — but only by a hair, as the guys from One Federal trailed closely behind. We knew that One Federal would make a strong showing, but were chuffed to discover that such culinary deftness lurks inside a Middlebury market, and one neither of us knows much about. Road trip!