By Jacob Mathias
It’s safe to say I know more than the average bear about food and cooking. I do a lot of research, eat wherever and whatever I can and spend a good portion of my free time cooking and learning more about it.
When I was given the opportunity to judge a cooking contest, the Iron Chef fundraiser for the South Wood County Humane Society, I thought to myself, “This will be a piece of cake…gosh I hope they serve cake.”
I was wrong.
The Iron Chef fundraiser operates in very much the same way as the popular TV show so I had an idea of what I was walking into. Earlier in the day, there was a revealing of a secret ingredient that the chef’s would have to put in their dishes, Nueske’s bacon in this case (the best bacon in the world, by the way.)
I was told by Bridget Chariton, executive director of the SWCHS that over $1500 worth of bacon had been donated to the event and that Nueske’s was chosen as the ingredient provider because of their contributions to the restaurant industry and in honor of the late Bob Nueske.
“He’s instrumental in the restaurant industry so this was our way to recognize him, not necessarily from a humane society standpoint but from a restaurant perspective,” she said.
The meal was served at the Nekoosa Community and I arrived at 5 PM to get acquainted and have a cocktail or two before dinner.
Chefs from Marjorie’s Steakhouse, Baker Street Grill, Sportsman’s Pub, Hotel Mead, Romano’s Pizza, Great Expectations catering, Nekoosa Public Schools and Mid-State Technical College’s Canteen Services were stationed outside. All were huddled underneath collapsible picnic tents, at the same time trying to cook dinner and escape the soaking rain.
At 6 PM, 192 dinner guests and five judges were seated for dinner.
I have a big appetite but I was not prepared for what came next.
One-by-one, eight different dishes prepared by eight different chefs, all containing Nueske’s bacon were presented to me. Upon receiving the first dish, I made a rookie mistake.
I ate over half of it. This is not a good plan when you have seven courses to go, none of which I am expecting to be light.
The first dish was a flat iron steak marinated in bacon drippings, dry rubbed and grilled. It was served with a mission fig sauce, bacon mashed potatoes and a bacon and corn succotash. I was stunned by this dish and rightfully so.
The entree was prepared by Chef Matt Andres of the Nekoosa Public Schools. At the end of night, Andres would win the award for best use of the secret ingredient, an award he won at last year’s competition as well.
“I worked with my students from Nekoosa High School,” said Andres. “We kind of had a plan. We had a couple menus kicked around with different dishes depending on what the secret ingredient ended up being. Once we got our secret ingredient today at 1:00, we went back to the school and hammered out what we were going to do.”
More dishes followed including a smoked bacon cheesecake with bourbon caramel sauce, bacon wrapped beef medallions with bacon and beer cheese soup, bacon wrapped turkey meatballs, a mixed green salad with bacon infused vinaigrette, bacon croutons, watermelon salsa and poached scallops, bacon wrapped sirloin steak with German potato salad and a bacon and peanut butter soup.
By entree number four, I was beginning to think I’d made a mistake. Everything served was delicious.
“How do I judge this?” I thought. “Am I too full to be fair to the later dishes? Am I going to be sick on the nice lady next to me?”
Judges scored the chefs’ offerings based on overall taste, effective use of the secret ingredient, originality/uniqueness and presentation.
Another repeat winner took home the title of Iron Chef for the second year. Chef Scott Keller of Canteen Services presented the judges with a baguette topped with a bacon mascarpone cheese spread, andouille sausage and a balsamic, shallot jam. Alongside that was a grilled chicken breast, wrapped in bacon, served on a bed of cheesy, bacon polenta and topped with pineapple salsa.
“I rolled with what they gave but it’s not really about winning for me. It’s more about the guests here and the humane society and the fundraiser,” said Keller. “It’s fun and entertainment for me.”
Did I give all the dishes fair and thoughtful judgement? I think so.
Do I believe the winners of the competition were the one’s who deserved the award. Yes, I do.