Chefs vie for top honors at Taste of Vail’s Lamb Cook-Off Thursday | VailDaily.com
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Chefs vie for top honors at Taste of Vail’s Lamb Cook-Off Thursday

Caramie Schnell
cschnell@vaildaily.com
Twenty-four restaurants will vie for top honors at today's Lamb Cook-Off in Vail Village.
Zach Mahone | Special to the Daily |

If you go ...

What: Lamb Cook-Off and Apres Ski Tasting.

Where: Vail Village.

When: 3 to 6 p.m. Thursday.

Cost: Unlimited pass for $75 or individual tasting tickets priced at $4.

More information: Visit http://www.tasteofvail.com.

With a sea of white tents, savory aromas permeating the air and throngs of people balancing small plates and glasses of wine weaving their way through the streets, Vail Village feels a bit like a carnival during the Lamb Cook-Off.

At least that’s how chef McLean Hyde sees the annual Taste of Vail event. That’s why Hyde, the chef de partie at Vin48 in Avon, is serving food on a stick — lamb corn dogs — and cotton candy at Thursday’s competition.

But the dishes are certainly a step up from typical deep-fried Snickers and powdery funnel cakes. Vin 48’s corn dog is a Lebanese sausage called makanek, encased in a gluten-free batter made from cornmeal and fava bean flour and seasoned “like falafel,” Hyde said. The cotton candy is made with pomegranates, so the tart flavors balance the sweet.

“We’ll hopefully use the corn dog as a whisk and have a little thing of cotton candy around the dog so you get the pomegranate in each bite,” Hyde said.

Pickled mustard seeds add spice to the dish.

“It really has a wide range of flavors going on,” said Hyde, who’s been thinking about the dish off and on since last year’s competition, but solidified the plan a few months ago. This is the third year Hyde is in charge of Vin48’s entry into the competition.

He envisions the dish being an “attention grabber.”

“You know how you see someone walk by with a certain dish and you go, ‘hey where did you get that from?’ That’s what we want,” he said. “We wanted the wow factor this year.”

While the chefs tend to “joke and jab at each other, and have a good time,” according to Hyde, they also take the words “Cook Off”quite seriously and Hyde would love to win this year’s competition.

“That’s what we’re hoping for,” he said.

STREET FOOD GONE FANCY

Lamb dogs have historically done well at the event. Last year, Christopher Schmidt, the sous chef from Mountain Standard at the time, won top honors from the judge panel for his “Lamb Dogs with Za’atar Yogurt and Cucumber Relish,” beating out 22 other entries.

Paul Anders, executive chef of Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard, said that the Lamb Cook-Off is something that they look forward to every year. Their general strategy is “big flavors in small packages,” Anders said.

This year, Schmidt, who is now the chef at Sweet Basil, will serve flatbread tacos, called taco arabe — or “Arabic style taco” — with strained yogurt, pineapple and chilies.

Each year, both Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard try to stick to street food-style dishes — “something that is portable and can be eaten easily as you walk around,” Anders said — thus the tacos, and Mountain Standard’s dish: “Char siu lamb steamed bun, with lamb fat mayonnaise, fish sauce caramel, pickled vegetables and soft herbs,” Anders said.

The initial brainstorming for the dish started a month ago, and the chefs have spent the last few weeks refining and honing the flavors in each dish.

“We hope to highlight the lamb and give it some complementary flavors that are interesting and bold,” he said. “We want to leave an impact with the guest and have them remember those couple of bites.”

FROM ASIA TO AFRICA

Matsuhisa Executive Chef Brian Busker says his chefs have fun with the competition, but definitely take it seriously, as do the majority.

“I’m pretty sure most chefs have type A personalities,” he said.

Last year Matsuhisa took home the People’s Choice award and they hope this year’s dish — braised lamb “steaks” with fermented black beans, sesame eggplant and charred broccoli — wins similar high marks from the people as well as the judges.

He’s paired fermented black beans with lamb before and “loved the combination,” he said.

“We really focused on trying to utilize the leg of lamb in a different matter by braising with dashi [savory Japanese stock], shredding it and wrapping it in caul fat,” Busker said. “Then we’re going to sear it like a steak and glaze it with a sauce made from the cooking liquid, ginger, fermented black beans, garlic and some other ingredients.”

Over at La Tour, another past Lamb Cook-Off winner, Executive Chef Thomas Newsted started processing his share of lamb (each participating restaurant gets 65 pounds of lamb leg donated by the American Lamb Board) on Monday night. He marinated the meat in a Moroccan-style marinade with herbs and spices indigenous to Morocco and Indonesia. The lamb will be served with a savory goat cheese Madeleine — a traditionally sweet seashell-shaped cake — tossed with a spiced plum and lamb powder.

Newsted, who took over the executive chef role at La Tour in February, plans to sous vide the lamb and then grill it on site, certain to attract passersby attention thanks to the savory smells.

“The idea behind the spices is to bring aroma, and to have that perfume that surrounds the booth while we serve it,” Newsted said.


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