Being named "Top Chef of the Champlain Valley" is quite an honor, and last night, three talented chefs brought their knives, their sous chefs and lots of cheering fans to UVM's Dudley H. Davis center to compete for the title. The four-year-old event is a fundraiser for the Champlain Valley Agency on Aging.
The pressure was on Sam Palmisano of Pulcinella's, two-time returning champion, but he remained relaxed and unfazed throughout the evening. Competing against him were David Fonte of 156 Bistro and Donnell Collins, chef and co-owner of Leunig' Bistro.
I was one of the judges, along with executive chefs Mark Timms from Topnotch and Tim Elliot (also an owner) of Stone Soup.
Just before the cooking began, farm-based consultant Annie Harlow unveiled the secret ingredient, Nitty Gritty Grain Company's Wapsie Valley cornmeal. The chefs were tasked with making an appetizer and an entrée, each incorporating the cornmeal, in just 50 minutes, with an audience of hundreds standing by.
The main protein available was quail from Cavendish Game Birds, and a long table was decked out with the best of Vermont's cheeses and produce.
Photo credit: Alison Redlich
In the end, Chef Fonte sent out creative fare — including a flavorful summer veggie roll — but it wasn't enough to take the title. Chef Palmisano wowed all three judges with his cornmeal mastery: He offered a creamy, mascarpone-laced polenta topped with roasted quail, and cornmeal gnocchi with fresh corn and local mushrooms. But the winner was Donnell Collins of Leunig's. She constructed a salad that aptly showcased seasonal ingredients, and her cornmeal-crusted fried quail entrée was juicy and well seasoned, accompanied by perfectly cooked vegetables.