Newberry chef claims Iron Chef honor
There are some events that you just have to make exceptions for: When Gainesville, of all cities, hosts a huge fundraising event with copious amounts of delicious local eats, even on Mother's Day it was hard to pass up. I reviewed last year's Taste of Gainesville, and based on the popularity, mostly quality food vendors and overall organization of the charity event, I was eager to return to this year's. Despite Sunday being a holiday, the 6th Annual Taste of Gainesville proved another memorable and successful affair.
On arrival at 5 pm when the event was set to begin, lines of couples and groups, some with glitter and glam, filed into the UF Hilton Conference Center off of SW 34th Street. By 5:30, it was difficult to maneuver around the gaggles of laughing attendants sipping their complementary Swamphead Brewery beer and checking out eligible silent auction items to bid on. I was glad to get there on time to get the lay of the land with my food partner for the evening, GLOB Content Editor Lynn Dirk, image left. The main room included three sizeable rows of chairs in front of three cooking stations for the Gainesville Iron Chef Competition that has become standard at this event, which I was very happy to see, as it made me feel as if I were watching a live version of my Food Network guilty pleasure show.
Before the cooking challenge began, Lynn and I decided that it was a good idea to peruse a few rooms of food early on since last year many booths ran out of food by the time I reached them. The "Taste of Broadway" theme was well-done, each tasting room's decoration reflecting a different popular Broadway show, from Mamma Mia to Hairspray, although the food did not relate to the theme.
The South Pacific-themed room was memorable, not only for Hyppo handing out free gourmet popsicles in a myriad of flavors, but also for UF Health's booth, which I returned to for another round of their zesty cooked shrimp, hot and crispy fish cake with slaw, and decadent chocolate mousse with raspberry ganache in an adorable little martini glass. I made a return to the Hairspray room, as well, for the Cairo Grille booth with their rich and creamy hummus, amazing stuffed grape leaves, and deliciously chewy Baklava. I apparently need to get over to the Cairo Grille restaurant and try the falafel, and after this event, with the extremely friendly service, I most certainly will. Speaking of friendly service, Dave's New York Deli not only set up an aesthetically-pleasing New York-style booth to transport you to the bustling city, but served three variations of a good old hotdog to feast on. The Chicago-style dog with the brightest green relish ever, a solid layer of onions, a pickle, tomato, small hot pepper, and mustard made this non-hotdog lover pleasantly surprised. I also love Dave's Deli, in general.
Some booths were memorable for less desirable reasons. Vellos served up apricot ribs and a pasta dish that were not very good, but I have to give credit for the bacon-wrapped, goat cheese-stuffed date which was a perfect marriage of flavors and textures. Lynn enjoyed the David's BBQ brisket sliders, image right. The cold meat served at Backstreet Blues Catering was not particularly appetizing. Also, while Lynn seemed to savore Sabore's appetizer-style offering of a fresh corn soup over ice cream with a drizzle of crispy bacon bits, I did not enjoy it as much, which could be due to my distaste for corn. Despite being listed as a participating restaurant on the Taste website, I did not see the Red Onion or Gainesville Country Club booths, but maybe I just missed them.
After enjoying a few rounds of goodies, Lynn and I were drawn to the main room by the introductiuons of the three Iron Chef contestants for the evening: Sr. Executive Chef from Morrison Healthcare, Patrick Modriskey; owner of The Elegant Gourmet, Frankie Harvey; and last year's champion and Executive Chef of Sabore, Valero Alises. After a few more introductions and a thanks to the brains behind Taste, Advantage Publishing, the mystery ingredient was revealed: bourbon! And the chefs were off and running.
The chefs were allotted 60 minutes to prepare the meal, and three highly-esteemed judges flew in from all over the country to judge: Simon Majumdar, known as one of Food Network's "toughest critics" from his appearances on such shows as Iron Chef America and Cutthroat Kitchen; Ivan Dorvil, executive chef and food connoisseur who has also been a judge on various Food Network shows and was one of last year's Taste judges; and Angie Shaghaghi, chef, owner, and operator of a mobile cooking school and former Food Network contestant on such shows as Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen. The dishes were inventive and the judges were quite honest. Simon called one dessert "a complete disaster," while Angie remarked how she loved the Florida-themed plate of seafood she was presented with, as she grew up off of the Florida Gulf Coast. I saw one Taste attendee who bought Chef Valero's dishes for auction give a friend a taste of the dessert Valero had created -- it involved drinking a confection through a straw with a side cookie dough taster.
No visit to Taste would have been complete without my two favorite dessert booths. First up, KB Kakes stole the dessert show, per usual, with her amazing Godiva chocolate mousse/cake, chocolate and raspberry mousse, and white wedding cake with raspberry gel mini parfaits. According to KB herself, when I asked what the glitter on the chocolate mousse cake was: "It's actually 24-carat gold. It's edible." Whatever it was, it was delicious. I probably had one too many of each of the mini confections, but she sells out early every year, so I had to take precautions. The Thornebrook Chocolate booth is another can't-miss, dessert trays staggered high with more mini truffles and truffle wine shots than I could get my paws on. All of the truffles were absolutely perfect, but the dark chocolate raspberry truffle and the milk chocolate truffle with peanut butter and marshmallow fluff filling was truly out of this world. Add in the dark chocolate, ganache-filled truffle and I was in sweet tooth heaven. Again, this is a very popular booth, so I couldn't take any chances.
Aside from the great ambiance, fabulous entertainment, and great variety of local food vendors present, what makes Taste such an important event is how much is raised for a few wonderful charities, including Tyler's Hope for a Dystonia Cure, PACE Center for Girls Alachua, and the Child Advocacy Center. It is not often I attend an event with an Iron Chef-style competition that not only exemplifies some very talented local chefs but benefits nonprofit organizations that focus on children. I surely plan on returning, and highly recommend this unique experience to anyone, Gainesville resident or otherwise.
FROM LYNN's PERSPECTIVE: My favorite dessert was the chocolate mousse with raspberry gel that UF Health served in the South Pacific room. At that table, there was a tiki head with its mouth in a very wide-open smile. I said to the chef behind the table that the tiki was a great symbol of the event, and I continued, "I can't believe I ate . . . " and then the chef and I both said "everything" at the same time. Also, I want to mention that Chef Majumdar has his own very worthy cause that he describes in his book Fed, White, and Blue -- Finding America with My Fork: appreciating the diversity of the food culture in America that immigrants have created. This British food critic "will expand readers’ understanding of the United States’ rich and diverse food cultures while offering refreshing insight into the question of what it means to be an American" (Book People Blog).