Infusion of salmon, soba, social networking

The diverse ingredients included seared salmon, soba noodles, chocolate truffles, high-energy competitors, fledgling judges, and a drill sergeant.

Chris Calhoun

Chris Calhoun, the Desmond Hotel's executive chef, briefs contestants in the Chester County Culinary Challenge.

“Two minutes left,” shouted Christopher Calhoun, the Desmond Hotel and Conference Center’s executive chef, immediately eliciting a chorus of groans.

The contestants couldn’t say they hadn’t been warned. Michael Chain, the Desmond’s general manager, had cautioned the audience of about 100 on Tuesday, April 12, not to confuse Calhoun with celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, known for terrorizing aspiring chefs on TV.

“He can make him look like Mother Teresa,” Chain noted, adding that Calhoun gets lots of practice. Events modeled after “Chopped,” a show on the Food Network, have become frequent occurrences at the hotel.

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Dawn Dowling from the Brandywine River Museum examines a potential ingredient for her team's Bento box.

At last week’s Chester County Culinary Challenge, as the timer neared the one-hour deadline, the participants were too intent on completing their creations to do anything but rev into high gear. The gathering represented a creative networking opportunity hosted by the Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau, co-sponsored by Mid-Atlantic Events Magazine.

“We did an event last year with a cooking component,” explained Nina Kelly, marketing and communications director for the Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau. “It was so popular that we decided to make it the focus. It’s a lot more fun than just handing out business cards.”

Chester County Commissioners Michelle Kichline (from left), Kathi Cozzone, and Terence Farrell savor the taste of judging.

Chester County Commissioners Michelle Kichline (from left), Kathi Cozzone, and Terence Farrell savor the taste of judging.

Representatives from many of the county’s premier attractions participated, including Longwood Gardens, the American Helicopter Museum, the Brandywine River Museum, and QVC. In addition, employees from area hotels from Exton to Valley Forge to Philadelphia had a presence, as did caterers and event planners from private firms as well as local companies like Vanguard.

Before turning the crowd over to Calhoun, Susan Hamley, executive director of the Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau, welcomed them. “We’re all happy you’re here in beautiful Chester County,” she said. “ We think it’s a pretty special place.”

Judge Daniel Love of Catering By Design evaluates the finished entries.

Judge Daniel Love of Catering By Design evaluates the finished entries.

And for those who want to learn more about just how exceptional it is, the tourism bureau’s website now enables users to search for specific attractions ranging from wineries to historic sites, said Courtney Babcock, sales manager for the bureau.

Then it was time for Calhoun to take the spotlight, and he explained the procedure to the attentive chef wannabes. Each team was instructed to choose a captain – or chief delegator – and a name for the group. Each team’s table, which included a cooking station, contained a Bento box and a plate of ingredients, which could be supplemented at a couple of condiment stations in the room.

An array of Bento box ingredients await the culinary magic of the contestants.

An array of Bento box ingredients await the culinary magic of the contestants.

Despite the goal of preparing a Bento box lunch, a single-portion takeout meal popularized in Japan, Calhoun encouraged the groups to think outside the box, creating “a fun, cute little lunch.” For example, the rice could be transformed into a Panda bear. The results would be judged on a host of criteria, such as presentation, execution, aroma, flavor, appearance, and difficulty, he said.

Once Calhoun issued the go-ahead, the clock starting ticking and controlled chaos ensued as the teams got organized and began madly slicing, dicing, and chopping.

'Ray's A's,' the first-place team, celebrates its victory.

'Ray's A's,' the first-place team, celebrates its victory at the Chester County Culinary Challenge.

Contestant Dawn Dowling from the Brandywine River Museum helped her group rule out one accessory ingredient. “I have no idea what this is,” she said, holding up a clear, vacuum-sealed, unmarked package with black contents.

Nearby, Robyn Morgan explained the origin of her team’s name: Wingin’ It. “I work for the Helicopter Museum,” she said with a smile.

As the knives clanged and whisks whirred, Desmond employees walked around to offer assistance. “You’re being judged on the cleanliness of your table,” one worker whispered as she surveyed a particularly messy workstation. Uh-oh, said Kelly Savage of QVC before bursting into laughter.

All hands are busy as the clock approaches the deadline for completing the Chester County Culinary Challenge.

Hands fly as the deadline looms for completing the Chester County Culinary Challenge.

Despite an occasional moment of panic – Is the salmon overcooked? Is someone cutting the peppers? – frivolity reigned.

“We’re having a really good time,” said Brendan Shuff, an event manager for Event Strategy Group in Plymouth Meeting. “We’re all working together.”

Pam Wynne, a project manager for Meetings Professional International, said the event offered a positive way to connect planners and venues. “It’s a great, low-key way to network,” she said.

Completed Bento boxes are displayed to an admiring audience.

Completed Bento boxes are put on display.

“This food smells amazing,” said Chester County Commissioner Michelle Kichline as she began to survey the completed entries. Kichline, who served as one of the judges, had a specific job: assess doneness. “I just have to determine whether everything was cooked properly; that seems easy enough,” she said.

Commissioner Kathi Cozzone agreed, concluding that her own task was a bit more esoteric. “I’m supposed to evaluate balance,” she said, explaining a quest for the proper proportion of salty, sweet, bitter and sour flavors. “I guess I’ll figure it out.”

Commissioner Terence Farrell received a less demanding job. “I’m just here to taste,” he said.

An oversized gift box from the staff at QVC attracts admirers at the Chester County Culinary Challenge.

An oversized gift box from QVC attracts admirers at the Chester County Culinary Challenge.

Calhoun, an inveterate taskmaster, said he was impressed with the results. “I wasn’t sure what to expect,” he said. “The teams that won were separated from the others by just one point.”

As he perused the judge’s tally sheet, he said the first-place winner, despite getting a five-point deduction for blowing the deadline, managed to pull ahead with its scores for convenience – defined as ease of eating – and balance.

Cornering the winner’s market was Ray’s A’s, a group of five that contained three Vanguard event planners. The inspiration for the moniker came from the group’s gender imbalance: Ray Smith was the only male.

No one left the event empty-handed. In addition to the first-, second-, and third-place prizes, which ranged from an oversized container of Herr’s snacks to stays at the Desmond, all participants received mementos, such as aprons and cutting boards. And a handful of the luckiest won raffle prizes, such as a gift certificate for the Whip Tavern in West Marlborough Township.

But it was Kathleen Fowler of Embassy Suites who may have walked away with the evening’s most coveted raffle item: a giant gift box prepared by staffers at QVC. The contents were so jam-packed that they dwarfed one of the larger offerings among them: a Keurig coffeemaker.

For more information on the Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau, visit http://www.brandywinevalley.com.

 

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