Denver café owner penultimate winner?

By on March 8, 2017

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Cocalico Iron Chef competition could end

Chef Courtney Rittenour eked out her second consecutive win as the Cocalico Iron Chef on Sunday, but her stuffed “Puttin’ on the Ritz” chicken may be her final entry in the annual competition.

It could be the last entrée to grace a judges’ table at all.

Just before Rittenour, owner of Denver’s Courtyard Café on Main, was crowned champion, Cocalico Education Foundation President Jim Weaver announced the 11-year-old contest might be discontinued in 2018.

“We’re asking people for ideas,” Weaver told the packed cafeteria at Cocalico High School. “It’s becoming harder and harder to make this event possible.”

Superintendent Dr. Ella Musser said the foundation has been having trouble attracting vendors.

On Sunday, four food providers offered up samples for the People’s Choice Competition. Those samples — cheeseburger pretzel bombs, habanero — mustard pulled pork, honey-poached pears and Italian rice balls studded with chicken and sundried tomatoes-are a big draw for attendees. Others handed out bites of cake, ice cream cups and kettle corn.

Iron Chef guests pay $20 for tickets, which includes access to four hours of sampling, silent and live auctions, raffles and community presentations. But the main attraction is undoubtedly the Iron Chef competition, which pits three local cooks against each other and the clock in a 40-minute cook-off.

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Weaver’s news didn’t sour the stomachs of the judges, who tucked into their plates with business-like commitment.

As usual, the contest required participants to cook from a mystery basket, supplemented by a wide variety of shelf-stable and refrigerated ingredients and a bounty of fruits and vegetables from Hurst Produce.

This year’s basket was stocked with Ritz crackers; skinless, boneless chicken breasts; fresh asparagus and dry blood orange coulis mix. The powdered coulis is typically mixed with water to create a puree that adds flavor and visual appeal.

Rittenour combined her coulis with fresh-squeezed citrus and used it as a dressing over a mesclun and fennel salad. That accompanied chicken stuffed with a creamy spinach-and-asparagus mixture and topped with the crab meat. She served potatoes on the side.

As returning winner, Rittenour was the first to present to judges Jon Davenport of Retreat Lancaster County; Louis Chabot Jr. of the Ephrata American Legion; and Sam DiBlasi, former owner of DiBlasi’s Sandwich Shop in Denver. Greg Stull bid his way into the fourth and final seat at the taster’s tables.

“We were trying to make it as fancy as we could,” Rittenour told them.

After making a few culinary critiques and scoring the plate, the judges turned their attention to Leed, owner of Sandy’s Cakes & Cuisine in Stevens.

A baker by trade, Leed was pulled into the cooking competition after placing second in last year’s People Choice category.

Accompanied by her assistant, son Dustin, Leed prepared fried chicken tenders with a crushed cracker-panko breadcrumb-pecan meal crust, and its golden-brown color was near perfection. They used every second of the allotted time, drizzling their blood orange coulis over the meat as the announcers counted down to zero in dramatic fashion.

“It’s extra stressful cooking with your mother,” Dustin Leed told the judges. “Please show me some grace.”

The Leeds’ plate also featured a cold crab and asparagus salad with white wine vinaigrette and steamed mashed potatoes that she mixed with an electric beater and then whipped by hand. Even as Sandy Leed piped potatoes onto the plate with precision, the dish maintained its home-style feel.

When Leed announced she used a little onion powder and “lots of butter,” Chabot said she’d get “points for that.”

Brad Dunlap, chef and manager of the Village Haus in Adamstown, rounded out the competition. His cooking generated some mild controversy early in the cooking stages, when judges realized he was preparing shrimp he’d brought with him to the event.

Hosts Tom Gillin of Blue Ridge Cable’s Cooking for Class, and John Moeller, owner of State of Affairs Catering, consulted and announced that Dunlap, as required, had offered to share the shrimp with fellow competitors at a pre-contest meeting.

He was allowed to include them in his dish.

Dunlap’s plate was brimming with food, including chicken stacked beautifully with crab and shrimp, an Asian-inspired cabbage salad with a blood orange dressing and a side of steamed spaghetti squash.

But after he’d described his entry, Gillen asked him where his asparagus was.

Dunlap, who had wrapped up prep with four minutes remaining, had to admit the veggie was still in the kitchen’s steamer.

“It was supposed to go in the sauce,” he said, to an audible sigh from the audience.

Dunlap, last year’s People’s Choice winner, was not disqualified but did receive a points deduction for the oversight.

After raffling off an extra plate from each judge-they went for $40, $45 and $55-the judges announced Rittenour the winner, followed by Leed, and then Dunlap in third. Each participant was presented with a medal, while Rittenour gets to hold onto the trophy for at least another year.

The district was also a winner, with 320 tickets sold. The event raised an estimated $20,000, according to Lesley Stricker, the district’s assistant business manager.

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