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Quick thinking, fast cooking

Cassie Pence
Shane Macomber/Vail DailyRafih Bejelloun samples his culinary creation Friday at the Vilar Center during the World Cup Chef Challenge, in which Bejelloun won his round. The challenge was an Iron Chef-like competition where sets of chefs had to prepare dishes in 20 minutes using mystery ingredients. It was part of the seventh annual Beaver Creek Culinary Classic, a four-day event that paired local and guest chefs from across the country in celebration of gourmet food and wine.
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BEAVER CREEK – I don’t know which was more entertaining: the blondes wearing naked-lady aprons banging pots and pans and ringing cowbells in support of their favorite cook, or the quick-handed chefs preparing a meal with mystery ingredients in 20 minutes.The Beaver Creek World Cup Chef Challenge Friday at the Vilar Center was one of the more lively events of the seventh annual Beaver Creek Culinary Classic, a four-day celebration of gourmet food and wine hosted at the resort in partnership with Bon Appetit magazine. The challenge was Beaver Creek’s version of “Iron Chef,” a TV show on the Food Network based around competition.The chef challenge was set up on the Vilar stage, and as an audience member, I felt like I was watching a live taping of a television show – the set was that professional. Two huge video screens gave the audience a closer look during the action. Three sets of chefs had 20 minutes to create dishes using two fully functional “mock” kitchens and five mystery ingredients, though they did have access to anything in the pantry, which was quite full with fresh produce, starches and spices. Amateur chefs Steve Pope and Mathew Juechter competed first. The gun went off, so to speak, and along with their sous chefs, which happened to be Pope and Juechter’s best friends, the two snapped into action, first opening the bag that held the secret ingredients: scallops, leeks, grapefruit, bacon and asparagus.

“Our strategy involved having four basic preparations pre-planned. The idea is that the four basic plans would cover most of the combinations of ingredients the contest could include,” said Pope, who was assisted by Loren Gifford.The plan worked. Pope and Gifford won the contest with two dishes – bacon seared scallops resting on a fresh basil leaf over a bed of fresh fruit salsa and scallops on angel hair pasta with a light red sauce. Their strategy might have earned them the victory, but the three rows of gorgeous blondes, endearingly called “The Popettes,” could have been the morale boost the men really needed to win. Judges graded on use of ingredients, how it tasted, how the plate looked and workmanship.Juechter and his assistant Ted Smith fared well, too. I was amazed at how calm the teams remained under such time-crunching pressure, and both of the teams’ dishes appeared gourmet. No one would have guessed they were amateurs.”Our strategy was to work fast,” Smith said.”We used our experience,” Juechter added. They too had a cheering section, which was armed with homemade posters. The full house was definitely a rowdy bunch.

The mood shifted into a more intense gear when the first two professionals graced the stage, David Sanchez of Allie’s Cabin and Tiffany Sawyer of the Beaver Creek Lodge. Apparently there was some home-turf trash talking backstage.The biggest difference between the amateurs and the professionals was the polished techniques. You should have seen how quickly these professionals could cut onions, without a tear in sight. When the buzzer rang at 20 minutes, Sawyer won the contest with her spice-crusted duck breast.”It’s a tough contest. Twenty minutes is not a long time; it takes 10 minutes just for a duck breast to cook,” Sawyer said. “I had a blast, though.”The last round pitted guest chefs Rafih Benjelloun of Imperial Fez in Atlanta against Paul Albrecht of Spice in Atlanta. Benjelloun was full of energy and love for Vail – where he used to live and own another Imperial Fez – while Albrecht was a bit more serious about the contest. Venison, porcini mushrooms, apples and parsnips had to be incorporated into their dishes. Benjelloun, hailing from Morocco, went straight for the cous cous on the pantry shelf.”This is the first time in history that cous cous has ever been served with venison,” shouted the playful Benjelloun to the crowd. “It’s wild cous cous. I’m just so inspired.”

At the end of the duel, Benjelloun won with his Moroccan-sparked venison. After watching these culinary geniuses in the kitchen, it’s hard to feel proud of a quick dinner consisting of boiled pasta and canned tomato sauce. I guess you can prepare a gourmet meal in 30 minutes – well, actually 20.Arts and Entertainment Editor Cassie Pence can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 618, or cpence@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado


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