Local chefs, bartenders compete in ‘Top Chef’ competition

BY LUKE VOELZ | MARCH 31, 2011 7:20 AM

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Hicham Chehouan was expecting to put on a show.

When the Downtown Association of Iowa City asked his restaurant, Crêpes de Luxe, 309 E. College St., to participate in the city’s first Top Chef competition, the chef began preparing himself for a network-TV-style cook-off.

“I thought it would be like cooks on a stage in front of a crowd of people,” he said while readying a pastry to be filled with almonds, cream cheese, and cognac-marinated strawberries.

Yet there were no flashing lights or bellowing announcers at the hotelVetro, 201 S. Linn St., on Wednesday. A subtler atmosphere of dimmed lights and the mellow conversation of roughly 60 event-goers filled the second-floor ballroom. Eight Iowa City restaurants and six bars set up stands displaying specialty dishes, hoping to earn one of three awards: Top Chef, Master Mixologist, and People’s Choice.

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The awards conferred nothing more than bragging rights, but the Motley Cow Café, 160 N. Linn St., took the Judges’ Choice (Top Chef) title.

Restaurant owner David Wieseneck displayed samples of a dish made from house-cured pastrami and pumpernickel bread garnished with carrot sprouts. Everyone who approached his stand sampled the concoction, he said.

“I haven’t been aware of anyone [who didn’t try it] except someone who didn’t eat meat, but I enticed them into one without meat,” he said, smiling.

The Downtown Association hosted the competition, which Executive Director Nick Arnold said had two goals: increased publicity for Iowa City restaurants and gather profits from ticket sales.

The profits will be split 50-50 between the association and the Make Change with your Change program, which uses parking meters to collect spare coins to donate to local charities. The meters are intended to take the place of panhandlers downtown.

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Arnold said the Downtown Association chose to split the profits with the charity because it helped get the cause started.

“It’s a newer organization, and we’re looking to get it off the ground,” he said.

Arnold guessed association wouldn’t make extensive profits because of the low ticket cost of $10, but he said he was still glad to gain public support for Make Change with your Change. As of Wednesday night, organizers did not know the final fundraising amount.

But as the Downtown Association helped out a local charity, chefs helped satisfy attendees’ appetites.

Some thirsty patrons made their way to the Brothers Bar & Grill stand displaying six new kinds of Long Island iced tea. General manager Nick Carroll said the bar, 125 S. Dubuque St., waited until the event to unveil the alcohol smorgasbord.

“Now that people are done eating their meals, quite a few people will be picking [drinks] up,” he said. “This isn’t your ritzy wine-type of drink. This is more relaxing, under the sun in a beer garden.”

Share, 210 S. Dubuque St., took the title of Master Mixologist.

The competition samplers even helped Iowa City residents Kasey McMahon and Emily Lemke settle on dinner plans for the night.

“I wasn’t familiar with the majority of these restaurants,” McMahon said. “But now that I’ve tried Joseph’s [Steakhouse], we’re going there for dinner tonight.”

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