Celebrating life on the lamb at Taste of Vail
VAIL — The scene at Thursday’s Taste of Vail could have been any upscale midday lunch party — eight foodies seated around a table in a white tent in the middle of Vail Village, talking shop, drinking wine and kicking back — that is, until the food came out.
Silence reigned and chatter abruptly stopped as soon as the lamb entries for the 11th annual Taste of Vail Lamb Cook-Off were ceremoniously announced by name. There were Lamb Risotto Balls, Tacos Arabe, Sous Vide Moroccan Lamb and more exotic creations that were presented in succession to the judges for tasting and critique. There were nearly 30 dishes in all from various Vail restaurants, and all were vying for the title of “best lamb dish” during the second day at Taste of Vail.
When the samples ran out and the wine ran dry, two very different winners came out on top. In the Judges’ Choice competition, the top-three contenders were Mountain Standard’s Lamb Char Siu in first, followed by Sweet Basil with Tacos Arabe in second and Game Creek’s Lamb Bibimbop in second.
Judges weigh in
Overall, the Lamb Cook-Off boasted 28 restaurants, 72 wineries, two breweries and four distilleries, all serving up sample-sized sips and samples. Each restaurant received 60 pounds of lamb to create their dishes. Two prizes were on the line: the prestigious Judges’ Choice winner, who won $1,000; and the People’s Choice award, which came with the bragging rights that of the hundreds of samplers in Vail Village, your dish was the most delicious.
In the judges’ booth, eight judges, who ranged from food writers to restaurant owners to culinary professors, blind-tasted all of the entries for two hours, making notes and rating the dishes on presentation, creativity and taste. At the end, the scores are tallied up for the winner, while for the People’s Choice award, attendees dropped tokens at their desired restaurant booths to indicate their favorites.
At the judges’ tent, each dish underwent intense scrutiny and critique.
“It’s nice and tender,” said one judge.
“It’s almost too sweet,” adds another.
“The bite is good, but you don’t taste the lamb. It could be anything in here,” chimes in a third.
In a competition where everyone is working with the same cut of meat — and a notoriously tough one at that — chefs have to get creative. That leads to dishes that range from lamb sausage to Chinese barbecue ramen to lamb corndogs garnished with pink cotton candy. Some dishes seemed to bring loads of flair and pizazz, but fell short when the judges were looking for cohesion.
“That was like a prom date with too many accessories,” said judge Moira McCarthy, an author and reporter, after tasting one dish. “Take a look in the mirror and take something off.”
The people speak
Some dishes seemed to be too unique in the judges’ eyes — when it came to Hooked/Revolution’s Lamb Lollipops, a savory piece of lamb on a stick coated in a sweet pink sea salt malt, the food critics were not impressed.
“I don’t get it,” said one judge, pushing it away.
“That’s like casting Kim Kardashian as the English Patient,” cracked another, shaking her head.
The crowds, however, didn’t feel the same. In an ironic twist, they voted Lamb Lollipops in as the winner for the People’s Choice award.
Judge Heath Stone, a culinary professor at Johnson and Wales University in Denver, says that he’s now in his fifth year of judging the Lamb Cook-Off, so it’s difficult to come up with something he hasn’t seen. However, he also admits that lamb can be a fickle meat.
“The competition is built on a leg of lamb. It’s a tough cut to begin with, so it can be the coolest thing you’ve heard of, but if the presentation isn’t good, the whole thing falls flat. You really have to get every aspect right,” he said.
As difficult as the meat is to work with, winning chefs Paul Anders and Brian Brouillard of Mountain Standard seem to have mastered the cut. The restaurant or its sister restaurants have won the Lamb Cook-Off three years in a row now. Their winning dish featured lamb char siu with pickled carrot and lamb fat mayonnaise, fish sauce caramel and soft herbs.
“It’s not hard to come up with a new dish every year,” Anders said. “We pride ourselves in being pretty creative, and we never do the same thing twice. It’s a fun challenge.”
The Taste of Vail continues today with the Mountaintop Picnic at Eagle’s Nest in Lionshead and various seminars in Vail. See http://www.tasteofvail.com for more information and tickets.
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.
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