Cast Iron Cook-Off
The state’s premier culinary event re-invents Appalachian cuisine in a fun and fast-paced competition.
Photographed by Carla Witt Ford
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The rhythmic slap of knives ricochet around the room. Clouds of vapor billow from sizzling pans. “Five minutes!” the timekeeper yells. A whisk frantically beats against a stainless steel bowl, and plates are shuffled like a deck of cards. The aromas of sautéed garlic and seared meat waft through the air. “Thirty seconds…” Warriors sheathed in white chef coats battle the clock as they dart from one dish to the next, plating with precision.
No, you aren’t watching an episode of Chopped or The Iron Chef, and OK, maybe they aren’t warriors, but the 13 culinary teams who participated in the 2012 Cast Iron Cook-Off—the Olympics of Appalachian cuisine—sure felt like it. “That was intense,” says Mimi Wells, one of the participants, as she breathes a heavy sigh of relief. “Exciting and fun, but intense.”
Created seven years ago by the Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia, the Cast Iron Cook-Off has become West Virginia’s premier culinary event. Teams, sponsored by state and national businesses and corporations, are comprised of eight nonprofessional cooks who are paired with the region’s finest chefs and sous chefs. Each January, these teams meet in a friendly culinary contest with The Greenbrier serving as “kitchen stadium.” Their goal: to create the most innovative and delectable dishes using indigenous and locally sourced Appalachian ingredients that are prepared in traditional cast iron cookware.
p> Each chef creates an innovative four-course menu and goes over the recipes with the team, providing tips and tricks on how to create and plate each dish in the allotted one hour and 15 minutes. During the event, the chef and sous chef are watchful guardians as the team members dice, blanch, boil, and sear. “I love the educational element to the competition,” says participating chef Reed Vandenbergh of Lewisburg’s Stella’s Tea Room. “Most folks who participate are foodies, but that doesn’t mean they know how to properly dice a carrot. Of course, you want to win, but I just want the team to have fun and learn a few culinary skills.”
Once the dishes are plated and served to the panel of judges, points are given for use of local ingredients, innovation, presentation, and taste. The Cook-Off Grand Champion award goes to the overall winner but other awards of distinction include Best Interpretation of Appalachian Cuisine, Best Single Dish, Most Spirited Team, and Best Use of West Virginia Products. In 2012, Mountwest Community & Technical College of Huntington won the grand prize; WVU Small Farm Center, led by Chef Brian Wallace of Madeleine’s in Morgantown, took home second place; and Chef Nick McCormick’s Berry Hills Country Club of Charleston finished third.
This year, the Cast Iron Cook-Off turned the heat up by adding a Throwdown competition, pitting previous Cook-Off grand champions Chef Bryan Skelding of The Greenbrier, Chef Stephen Gustard from The Greenbrier Sporting Club, and Bridgeport’s Provence Market Café, led by chef and owner Anne Hart, against one another in an unrivaled culinary match-up. This high-energy contest was an epicurean’s dream. The Greenbrier creatively resurrected actual menus from the early 1900s, Anne’s team wore custom chef coats made from Dorothy Draper fabric as they served Rainbow Trout Walnutines, and The Greenbrier Sporting Club’s Wulfsong Ranch Muscovy Duck Breast with White Bean Purée made mouths water. The judges were culinary rock stars in their own right. Fourth generation proprietor of New Orleans’ famed Galatoire’s Restaurant, Chef Leon Galatoire, director of the Seasonal School of Culinary Arts Susi Gott Séguret, and Chef James Anderson of Charlottesville, Virginia, had the enviable task of tasting some of the finest Appalachian dishes ever created. They crowned Anne and Team Provence as West Virginia’s reigning Cast Iron Chef.