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Local chefs battle for honors at March of Dimes benefit

The phenomenon started, as many do, in Japan. An up-and-coming chef takes the stage to face off with an experienced one in a singular cooking style, featuring a secret ingredient.

A panel of guest judges determines whether the winner had bested the “Iron Chef.” The American version took the country by storm and now, in its 12th season, headlines a genre that has brought us the likes of Chopped, Hell’s Kitchen, Cutthroat Kitchen and so many more.

Along with America’s obsession with cooking shows has come a new awareness of culinary styles, food sourcing, nutrition and the work that goes into a restaurant dish, as well as the chefs behind the plate.

On Oct. 27 at Salvatore’s Italian Gardens, local chefs will face off with guest sous chefs and judges, to determine who wins the title of “Western New York’s Best,” in a benefit for the March of Dimes.

The chefs featured will be Oliver Wolf from La Cascata, Lennon Lewandowski from Oliver's, Jim Guarino from Oshun, Jeff Cooke from Osteria 166, Thomas Diana from Salvatore's, Jennifer Marabella from Siena and JJ Richert from Smoke on the Water. The evening also includes the Signature Chefs Auction and serving stations from the featured chefs and others, at which the restaurants showcase interpretations on the dishes their own restaurants serve up every day.

Jeff Cooke Jr. , executive chef at Osteria 166 on Franklin Street in Buffalo, will compete in the March of Dimes Signature Chefs auction.(Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News file photo)

Jeff Cooke Jr. , executive chef at Osteria 166 on Franklin Street in Buffalo, will compete in the March of Dimes Signature Chefs auction.(Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News file photo)

The Iron Chef format is not new to any of the chefs on the circuit, and the effects on the culture of food have been felt at every table in the country. Diners are more aware of their food and what goes into it than they have been at any other time in history, and that has both positive and negative impacts not only on the food the chefs serve, but their images themselves.

“It’s elevated the profession as a whole,” said Wolf. “Now, people look at chefs with more respect than they ever did before. There’s so much more room to experiment than there was before people were educated about food in the way they are today, thanks to these shows. The [genre of competitive cooking shows] has its challenges, but I think as chefs, we can look past those, as a whole, to the benefits and get away from things that would otherwise raise our blood pressure.”

Wolf does watch Chopped with his family, and said that, while he does not get frustrated with the shows exactly, sometimes he does question their integrity. “Once, I saw a chef completely bastardize a salmon and still get picked to move on,” he noted. “But you have to look past that.”

Lennon Lewandowski, chef at Oliver's, will participate in the special March of Dimes event as well. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Lennon Lewandowski, chef at Oliver's, will participate in the special March of Dimes event as well. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Marabella said Iron Chef-type shows and the public’s resulting opinions about food can sometimes be “shoved down your throat,” but she tries to take it in stride. “Just because one person has an opinion about something doesn’t make it right,” she added. The shows do have the added benefit of introducing Sienna’s executive chef to techniques or equipment she may not have used before, and helping her figure out what clients want on their menus.

“It’s a different mindset than it used to be,” she said of diners’ expectations, particularly the rise in diet restrictions that result from food awareness. “A lot of our clients are regulars and if they have diet restrictions, we work with them and know what they can eat. But when it’s mid-service on a busy Saturday night, that’s a different thing.”

The farm-to-table movement is one trend boosted by the Food Network that she happily gets behind. “We work with a lot of local vendors, and nothing beats those flavors,” she said. “It’s a great thing when we can work together to make great food. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

On the 27th, Wolf, Marabella and the rest will leave their own kitchens to face off in a new environment, bringing with it challenges above and beyond the legendary secret ingredient.

“It’s a little nerve-wracking, because it’s unfamiliar territory,” said Marabella. “I’ve done catering, I’ve cooked at people’s houses and I’ve taught cooking classes at Auburn Watson [Cooking School], but didn’t know what to expect at this venue. I’m a planner – as a single mom, you have to be – and a lot was very last-minute.”

Siena is offering stuffed artichokes with Pecorino cheese, garlic, breadcrumbs and lemon along with an eggplant caprese. That will include house-made mozzarella cheese, tomato, basil and balsamic vinegar, to create a portable version of what Marabella called one of Siena’s most popular dishes. With Siena’s open kitchen, she said diners regularly come up and see what’s going on behind the scenes, so she is used to being watched in that respect. Being on stage and the focus of an event is something new for her, though.

Wolf said the dishes his restaurant is serving are expressions of that restaurant’s Italian roots. First up is a roast pork tenderloin with boniato and date mash with Vincotto jus. Dessert is a pumpkin mascarpone topped with streusel. For him, the atmosphere is unusual but, “it’s all food, at the end of the day.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous,” he said. “But it’s not outside the realm of my comfort zone.” Both chefs were excited at the prospect of getting to see other chefs, work with new people in an exhilarating atmosphere, all in the name of a good cause.

Guests at the event can volunteer to be sous chefs or panel judges for the competition, putting their knife skills, kitchen chops and palates against those of the experts. For those whose names do not come out of the hat, local restaurants are offering tasting stations, throughout the evening.

Also on those tables will be wild boar ragu with wild mushrooms served over polenta from Osteria 166; the “Salvatore’s Roll,” which is orzo, pancetta, asparagus, mozzarella cheese and chicken wrapped in prosciutto; avocado mousse with shrimp crostini from Texas de Brazil, a smoked brisket slider from Smoke on the Water; butternut squash soup with creme fraiche from Oliver’s; oysters and scallop ceviche from Oshun; tagliatelle bolognese with Parmigiano Reggiano from Lombardo’s and more from other area restaurants.

Info: Signature Chef Auction and Western New York's Best Chef competition, 5:30 p.m., Salvatore's Italian Gardens, 6461 Transit Road, Depew. VIP tickets $175, general admission $100.)

Lizz Schumer writes about food, drink and whimsy for a variety of publications. She is the content manager at Resurgence Brewing Company and author of "Buffalo Steel." Find her online at lizzschumer.com, @eschumer and facebook.com/authorlizzschumer.

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