Local chefs and bartenders compete for Top Chef award

BY JULIA JESSEN | MARCH 28, 2012 6:30 AM

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The sounds and smells of sizzling meat, chopping vegetables, and shaking drink mixers will tease the taste buds of those in attendance at the Top Chef: Downtown event today.

"It's really neat to see people support local restaurants and fun foods and drinks," said Melanie Ewalt, a judge of the event and the head of the Kirkwood Culinary Institute. "That's what we do, and we love to see people enjoy our hard work."

The competition will take place at 5 p.m. today at hotelVetro, 201 S. Linn St. Admission is $25.

This is the second year of the event, and it involves chefs and bartenders from local restaurants competing for the title of 2012 Top Chef or 2012 Top Bartender.

The chefs will prepare a sample-size portion of a signature dish from their menu or a new creative idea they want to try. The bartenders will also present a sample of their best cocktails. Culinary experts and prominent local community members will judge the entries to determine the winner, and the guests in attendance will vote to determine the People's Choice award.

Ewalt, who also judged last year, said that while judging, she looks to see if things are cooked and seasoned properly and if the dishes take a creative risk.

"It was neat to see the passion in the room from all of the chefs," she said. "I think it's great to judge and see what chefs are doing."

One of the competitors is Peter Harman, the owner and chef of Graze. He said he looks at the event more as a way to support the community than as a serious competition.

"My theory is if you have 10 restaurants, you have a 10 percent chance to win," he said. "It's not like the Olympics, where the fastest guy wins — it's totally subjective."

Harman will make an avocado ice-cream pie with organic spelt-pretzel crust and pomegranate crème fraiche. He said he enjoys cooking because of the immediate feedback.

"I think chefs are like golfers — one good golf shot brings you back to play golf, and one good dish makes somebody happy and makes you feel good and want to do it again," he said.

Kurt Friese, bartender, chef, and owner of Devotay, will compete in the bartending category. He will present a gin-based punch with as many of the ingredients as possible obtained locally.

He said he appreciates the event recognizing bartenders as well as chefs.

"I'm really glad to see some attention paid to cocktail culture instead of the same old kamikaze shooters that you get at the college sports bars all the time now," he said.

The cocktail enthusiast said he hopes the event makes people take more pause in their meals.

"Sometimes, people forget the whole reason we go out for a meal is to enjoy ourselves — they think about it more mechanically, just, 'Oh, I've got to feed myself, so I'll just sit down here and get some food,' " he said. "It's a lot more important than that, and events like this sort of restore the fun aspect of the whole thing."

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