Iowa City chefs set for food face-off in 3rd annual Top Chef

BY AUDREY DWYER | MARCH 26, 2013 5:00 AM

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Food fuels mind, body, and spirit. And as a passion, it fulfills all aspects of life for culinary enthusiasts.

Today at hotelVetro, 201 S. Linn St., 14 chefs, four individuals deemed a wine or beer extraordinaire, as well as food experts from the downtown and North Side Marketplace restaurants will face off at the third-annual Iowa City Downtown District Top Chef.

A panel of culinary experts will name a winner, and members of the community will also determine a People’s Choice winner.

The event showcases culinary talent and creativity in Iowa City, while also allowing locals a unique inside look at the food they eat.

“Normally when you go into a restaurant, there is no contact with the chef, owner, or manager,” said Betsy Potter, an intern for the Iowa City Downtown District. “This event is unique, because people have a chance to create a connection with one of these restaurants on a personal level by striking up a friendly conversation that they may not get otherwise.”

More than 300 people will feast on a variety of food and drinks. Categories include best restaurant and chef, taste, flavor profile and texture, presentation, as well as uniqueness and signature.

Potter said the process will consist of a private judging event before guests arrive at 5 p.m. An assortment of 14 booths will be set up for the community. The winner of this year’s competition will rank with 2011 winner, David Wieseneck of the Motley Cow, 160 N. Linn St., and 2012 winner, Juan Casco of Mondo’s Saloon, 112 E. College St.

The judging panel includes chefs from the Class Act Restaurant at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids and other notable food experts.

One judge, Jason Vincent, will bring a different opinion to the table.

“Other judges from the panel are so trained in their profession and may get lost in the details,” said Vincent, the executive producer and morning anchor of KGAN/KFXA. “I have the ability to look at things with a wider perspective; it creates a good balance in accordance to those who are classically trained.”

The Daily Iowan had the opportunity to experience the fast-paced environments of three participating local restaurants: XIE, 223 E. Washington St., Fair Grounds Coffee/Howling Dogs Bakery, 345 S. Dubuque St., and Linn St. Café, 121 N. Linn St.


Flamenco music mixes with the sound of furious chopping in the kitchen of this new local fusion restaurant.

Cutting a handful of red peppers, Andrey Lavrenko comes into view. Nothing can break his concentration as he keeps his head down and musters up a dish with a lingering, ambrosial smell.

The SOUS chef of the French and Asian fusion restaurant, Lavrenko will feature a new dish at the Top Chef challenge as a way to introduce the restaurant to the area.

XIE, pronounced “shay,” means thank you. General manager Brian Clemetson explained it is the American pronunciation of the Chinese Mandarin word Xie-Xie (shay-shay). The title also pays homage to the new owner, Joe Xie.

For the Culinary Chefs and Dishes competition, Lavrenko plans to make a salmon gnocchi dish. This item is not yet on the menu, but the two wanted a dish with a level of thoughtfulness and playfulness to represent the restaurant’s fusion of French and Asian roots.

Lavrenko said the dish is not what one might expect from the French/Italian potato dumpling known as gnocchi, as it actually appears to be a sushi roll. The roll incorporates ink-black potato mixed with bright colors derived from the pink-orange salmon, lime-green cream sauce, green arugula, and bits of crimson red tomatoes.

“You won’t be enthralled if the meal looks bland or pushed together in one pile,” Clemetson said. “What we do here is we really look to showcase each ingredient in the dish through planning and presentation. Joe on the sushi side has a flair for drama and does some really neat work using knife skills to create interesting pieces along with Andrey’s mixture of French dishes combined with Asian inspired sauces and spices.”

Fairgrounds Coffeehouse and Howling Dog’s Bakery

Coming from the “University of Hard Knocks,” Per Weiger wipes a strand of hair away from his navy-blue bandana as he veers to and fro, preparing dishes and measuring precise ingredients in the confines of the Fair Grounds Coffeehouse and Howling Dogs Bakery.

Baking since he could walk, Weiger remembers using his sister’s Easy Bake Oven to test out some of his first pastry concoctions.

“My dad was a professional baker for 10 years, and if he didn’t teach me how to cook, he definitely taught me how to taste,” Weiger said. “I knew what to look for, and that has stuck with me throughout my life. I still have my dad’s sourdough-bread recipe.”

Owner Steve Pernetti’s philosophy for the restaurant is rooted in healthy eating as well the fact that all food items are made from scratch in-house. The coffeehouse features over 23 varieties and shares the space with the Howling Dogs Bakery.

The two entities have created a New York-style Reuben for the dish category as well as a gluten-free version of a classic cheesecake in the desserts category.

“I plan on trusting the quality of my baking,” said Weiger.  “We will try to crank out consistently good pieces of pastries in a form that best serve the people at the event and to also have plenty on hand.”

Linn St. Café

The decadent Linn St. Café is nestled under an awning on the north side of town. With his hair slicked back, wearing a gingham-burgundy shirt and matching chocolate-colored trousers, Nick Brink’s persona is evident not only in his appearance but in his culinary craft.

Brink creates a uniquely unforgettable cocktail. He works through trial and error to build his classic recipes.

“I think with the process of inventing a cocktail, there needs to be room for evolution,” said Brink. “I like to be rooted in classical, and I like to know the heritage of where drinks came from and why they are as they are.”

The wine enthusiast with a fine dining background set out over a year and a half ago in search of a wine-centric restaurant. Beginning as a server at the local Linn St. Café, Brink has been the front-house manager for almost a year now.

“I have an Old World palate, but it’s different for everyone,” he said. “Whatever you dig, you dig. I parallel drink-making to cooking, because you can conceptualize flavors in your head by how you think they can work together or even contrast.”

For the Top Chef event, Brink will make a cocktail named “Smoke & Mirrors.”

He will use a local Cedar Ridge distillery’s bourbon, fresh strawberries, basil, smoked peppers, in-house sweet and sour, as well as sparkling wine for the mixologist/cocktails category. On his eighth trial, he finally got what he was looking for: a mysteriously smoky taste, infused with his chili syrup.

“You’re throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks,” Brink said. “It wasn’t until I actually put the drink together till I knew what I wanted it to be like.”

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