Judging the Chef's Challenge at Trailfest

My inner voice told me that I should wear shoes that I wouldn't care about getting dusty/dirty and so I selected some boots. It turned out that was a smooth move because the event I was going to was hosted at an indoor horse riding facility. I was attending Trailfest, a fundraiser for the Central Valley Rails to Trails Foundation (CVRTF) and Project R.I.D.E. (Riding Instruction Designed for Education). Not only was I attending, I was a judge!

Trailfest was a dinner fundraiser organized by Betsy Hite of Elegant & Easy Gourmet Catering. Part of the evening included a Chef's Challenge featuring six chefs from some great area restaurants: Bret Bohlmann of Boulevard Bistro, David Hill of The Chef's Table, Ian MacBride of Lucca, Billy Ngo of Kru, Adam Pechal of Tuli and Thir13en, and Alwin Santiago of Clark's Corner. Their challenge was to present a final entree to six judges using fish from Passmore Ranch.

The highlight might have been the competition, but the focus was on fundraising for two causes I was unfamiliar with. The Central Valley Rails to Trails Foundation (CVRTF) is trying to buy old, unused railway land to create a 27 mile horse/bake/pedestrian trailway from Sacramento to past Galt. The plan is to buy a 100 foot wide swath of land following the abandoned railroad track.

Southern Pacific was in negotiations to sell them the land until the CA High Speed Rail project began. Now it is considered an alternate route for the trains and so they are holding on to it to wait to see if they'll be selling it to the State project. After all, wouldn't you love to get millions of dollars from the State versus thousands from the charity? Being that I'm a High Speed Rail supporter, I am torn by the opposing sides. Apparently everyone has told the CVRTF that they will just have to wait it out to see what happens on the rail project and hope for the best.

Some of the funds also went to Project R.I.D.E., which provides therapeutic recreational horseback riding instruction to over 440 children and adults with special needs. There is a waiting list for people seeking this program for help with both physical disabilities as well as emotional traumas. The volunteers help with administration as well as taking care of the horses and facilities. The hope was that additonal funding would assist in decreasing the wait list.

There was a silent and live auction as well. And if you know your equines, there was also a guess the weight of a horse game going on. Bendito was a lovely Andalusian stallion in the outdoor corral. I didn't guess since I have absolutely no idea how much an average horse weighs.

interviewing Billy Ngo

The chefs were back inside waiting for the start bell. They started cooking at 5 p.m. and had to be done and plated by 6:30. Interestingly, Adam Pechal arrived about 25 minutes late! I'm wondering if he forgot his calendar or something because he seemed totally disorganized and unprepared.

Adam Pechal plates
The chefs had the choice to use any of the fish that Passmore Ranch raises and sells. This included sturgeon, trout, catfish, black bass, or silver carp. Most went for the sturgeon with the trout being the second favored.

We six judges sat at three separate tables. I was paired with the Mayor of Elk Grove, Steven Detrick. The two of us were the harder critics. The other judges were: Carolyn Kumpe of Charlotte’s Bakery in Diamond Springs, Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli, Jerry Strong, a chef and Outstanding Citizen of Elk Grove, and a replacement judge. Our scoring was 10 points for taste, 5 for plating/presentation, and 5 for originality. That meant a perfect score was 20. Let's just say I gave my lowest score of 11.5 while others' lowest scores were 16! They were being too nice if their scores only hovered between 16-20!

The dishes went by so fast and were explained so quickly that there was no way for me to keep up with notes. I was mostly bummed that they took the plates away! I was pacing myself, to be sure, but I wanted the ability to go back to eat the rest later if I wanted and was denied that. So after the first one I figured I better eat as much as I dared from the ones I liked or risk being hungry and disappointed at the end.

As best as I can remember...

Presented in alphabetical order, first up was Bret Bohlmann of Boulevard Bistro. His was a cassoulet with sturgeon and pork belly.  I found that the overall flavor was a bit on the mild side, I would have liked it to be bolder. Being that it was a cassoulet, there wasn't too much to be done for presentation. I will admit that I regretted not finishing off that pork belly!

David Hill of The Chef's Table was next and presented three items. Up top is a sturgeon ceviche which was very nice with a bit of punch to it. On the right is a Thai curried sturgeon - OK, but nothing spectacular. It's the one on the left that was the star of the plate. A country fried piece of sturgeon with a sweet potato cake underneath, sauce and topped with crumbles of bacon popcorn. It had flavor and texture going on!

Ian MacBride of Lucca had an herbed stuffed trout over a bed of lentils. I'm afraid my biggest comment was that the flavors didn't work well together. One of the other judges said the same. It got a low score.

Billy Ngo of Kru spent most of his time plating all the elements to his 'bento box' presentation. Under the glass is the first course, a sturgeon nigiri sitting in smoke. You can see the lit wood shaving under the glass. Fabulous! You can see a sake soaked fried trout skin in the sake glass. The rest of the plate I can barely remember since there was so much on there! I just remember that he used every fish offered - catfish, trout, sturgeon, and the bass. I specifically remember the one in the hot pot (which was indeed piping hot!). It was fish and some veggies in a miso? sauce. Very good. After the competition I went to grab more of this.

Adam Pechal of Tuli and Thir13en suffered along with Santiago (next) with being last in line and so their dishes were cold when we got them. Pechal did trout two ways. I had been fascinated watching him smoke the trout roll on the right during the preceeding hour. He had just lit a bowl of wood chips, put the fish rolls on a steam screen, and then covered it all with another bowl. Both pieces of fish had very pronounced smokey flavor. I gave him good points even though I was disappointed in it being cold.

Later, during judge deliberations, it was discussed whether he should be eliminated or reduced in points for being late and only plating four plates instead of six. In the end it was decided that things like that would be clearly stated in the rules/scoring next year and we let him slide this time. I will tell you a secret though, he only won third place by half a point. So it was slightly controversial.

Alwin Santiago of Clark's Corner also suffered from being served cold. I had watched him poach the sturgeon in herb infused oil and making a giant batch of risotto. I now understand why judges on Top Chef warn about making risotto in a competition. Bad enough that it was cold, but it also wasn't cooked properly. I'm a risotto lover and this was just BAD - gummy and undercooked.  As for the fish, there wasn't much flavor discernible at all, after all that effort. I wonder if serving it warm would have helped.

The winner was Billy Ngo, second was David Hill, and third was Adam Pechal - barely. There was also a People's Choice award and that also was given to Ngo.

I certainly ate well, although quickly and missing my leftovers. It was my first time being asked to judge a food competition and it was definitely fun. I hope that I get the opportunity to do it again and again.