With 30 minutes still frozen on the clock, four Boise chefs stood at attention in the conference room of McCall's Shore Lodge, a space recently transformed to look like the set of the Food Network TV show Chopped. Wearing their aprons and chefs' whites, with cutting boards waiting in front of them, they were there to cook their way through a nearly three-hour competition in hopes of earning the title Culinary King of the Mountain. To the left sat three judges—The Grill Dads co-host Mark Anderson, Lucky Fins Corporate Executive Chef Wiley Earl and Duckhorn Vineyards Winemaker Renee Ary—their expertly honed taste buds at the ready to try plated appetizers, entrees and desserts.
"We anticipate everything will be really outstanding because it always is—no pressure," said Alan Turner, a retired chef and the event's emcee, addressing the chefs and a crowd of 50 onlookers.
For the sixth year of the Shore Lodge Culinary Festival, the King of the Mountain event had pulled all of its star power from Boise. Facing off were Chef Franck Bacquet of Bacquet's; Chef Vern Bauer of Bishop Kelly High School; Chef Justin Scheihing of Mai Thai and Chef Christopher Zahn of Zee's Rooftop. To complicate the competition, each would cook with assistance from two amateurs, who had paid to enter into the contest, and incorporate a handful of surprise ingredients, concealed in baskets until the clock started, into their dishes.
- Lex Nelson
- Chef Scheihing's appetizer was later named the day's best bite.
When the countdown for the first course began, each chef leapt to his wicker basket, unloading live soft-shell crabs, yellow beets, soy chorizo and boxes of Jiffy cornbread mix—just a taste of the oddball ingredients to come.
"The only problem with this is saving room for the next dishes," Anderson told Scheihing after dipping into his tempura crab-topped curry-lemongrass soup. "I would love to live in that broth."
After each round, the chef whose dish impressed the judges the least with its flavor, appearance and creativity was "chopped," a decision dramatically revealed to the audience from beneath a silver dome lid. The first to go was Chef Zahn, whose deconstructed Tex-Mex soft-shell crab salad was felled by undercooked beets, then Chef Bauer, whose "land and sea" entree of elk meatballs in port wine sauce and orange zest-topped razor clams was chopped because the latter was judged to be "a little too al dente" by Anderson and Ary.
"When I was much younger I thought, 'Oh, I need to have the title and I must get all the championships,'" Bauer told BW after bowing out, citing past accolades for his chocolate, chili and wings. "...but it was empty. They were victories that were won just for me." In contrast, he said he'd made the trip to McCall to spotlight the students in BK's culinary club, and was there specifically in the name of Cayden Arroyo, a 16-year-old who died of brain cancer. Despite being chopped, Bauer was buoyed by the fact that after each course, chefs' dishes were auctioned off to the audience to benefit the McCall-Donnelly Education Foundation, and his meatball dish alone had fetched $100.
That left two chefs to battle it out over dessert: Bacquet, whose expertise in French cooking had carried him through the first two rounds with ease, and Scheihing, who had wowed the judges with dishes inspired by his restaurant's Asian cuisine.
- Lex Nelson
- The judges favored Chef Bacquet's dessert of alcoholic syrup-soaked pound cake.
The final face-off was quieter than those that had come before, frantic calls of "Behind!" and dashes to the pantry for apron-loads of mushrooms replaced by the sizzle of frying baby bananas and the rasp of port-infused cheddar against a grater (two mystery basket ingredients, joining fig Triscuits and pound cake).
With just under two minutes left on the clock, both chefs stepped back from their plates to whistles and applause, revealing an alcoholic syrup-soaked pound cake topped with raspberry compote on Bacquet's, moated by cheese-infused sauce, a fig Triscuit crumble and a fried banana. At Scheihing's station were slices of butter-fried pound cake soaking in pools of lime leaf, lemongrass and cheddar custard, and crowned with fig Triscuit-battered fried bananas.
"It's been a lot of fun," Scheihing told BW while the judges deliberated. Asked if he thought his team would take home the title he said, "I think we are."
Scheihing was right: After 15 minutes of discussion, the judges crowned him Culinary King of the Mountain, citing his appetizer as the day's best dish and crediting it for edging him past Bacquet, though they had preferred the French chef's dessert.
"What are you going to do? Always in a competition, the judges decide," said Bacquet, accepting defeat with a shrug. The event marked his first timed cook-off in the U.S., although he'd already competed in Germany. "...It's okay, second place is okay," he said as attendees offered congratulations. "I won't cry."