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Who's the Top Chef of the Champlain Valley?


Published August 11, 2009 at 1:39 p.m.

Last night, I was lucky enough to serve as a judge at the third annual "Top Chef of the Champlain Valley" competition, which was held at UVM's Davis Center. The event, a benefit, is put on by the Champlain Valley Agency on Aging, and features a silent auction and hors d'oeuvres in addition to the high-intensity cooking competition.

My fellow judges were Chef Jozef Harrewyn of Chef's Corner in Williston, Annie Harlow, a food-sourcing consultant, and Food Writer Melissa Pasanen, just back from a sojourn in New Zealand.

This year, the chefs in the running were JJ Vezina of The Windjammer, Robert Barral of Café Provence and Sam Palmisano of Pulcinella's, who was defending his 2008 "Top Chef" title. With a rack of lamb and some ground lamb each, plus a pantry filled with wild mushrooms, potatoes, star anise and much more, the chefs embarked on a 50-minute cooking quest. The goal: to make the best appetizer and entrée of the competition. Just to make things a bit more complex, each dish had to  include the secret ingredient: honey.

After watching the chefs chop, stir and sweat — the action was projected on a huge screen for those not close enough to see — I joined my cohorts at a raised table for the judging.

First, Chef Vezina delivered his dishes. His app was an unusual concoction of shiitake mushrooms, cranberries, bok choy and plantain in a coconut-milk tinged sauce, topped with perfectly browned lamb meatballs. The follow-up was a classic lamb dinner, which included crisp potatoes and wax beans with a thick honey glaze.

Next was Chef Barral, former executive chef of NECI. His appetizer, a colorful confection, placed ground lamb atop mounds of pureed carrot in a seafoam-green sauce of parsley cream. Next came the lamb rack on a bed of couscous, with a honeyed fruit chutney.

Finally, Chef Palmisano offered up his first creation: honeyed lamb tartare on perfectly dressed mesclun greens in a ring of lightly roasted green pepper. He followed up with sweet and savory crusted lamb on wilted greens and gnocchi with a honey sauce. 

All were good, but after an intense discussion, we declared Palmisano and his team the winners for the second year running. His appetizer was the judges' all-around favorite and he used the secret ingredient to good effect, while remaining cool and collected and keeping his work station neat as a pin.

I can't wait to see who Chef Palmisano takes on next year!

Photo by Brent Harrewyn Photography