GUEST POST: IHB Hosts First-Ever Culinary Cook-Off!

Bred a full-blown PA Dutch gal, Amy Strauss is a Philly suburb-based food fiend who lives to chomp up-and-down the East Coast. Weaving through the latest brewpubs and craft breweries, up-and-coming bakeries and eclectic eateries, this twenty-something aims to live her food life as seen on an edible Travel Channel episode and always dashes to eat dessert first.  Amy is the Editor in Chief, Director of Social Media foThe Town Dish, a network of foodie websites featuring locally-focused dining and lifestyle information.

Here's a guest post by our dear friend, Amy.

Bright and early Wednesday morning (we’re talking before 8 a.m., folks), nine Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant chefs lined the still kitchen of Iron Hill’s Wilmington, Delaware location—all with hopes of being crowned Iron Hill’s Iron Chef 2012 Champion.

The culinary throwdown hadn’t just begun on August 8th, but weeks prior, as each of Iron Hill’s nine locations hosted their own in-house cooking battle (executive chefs not included), with one well-deserving kitchen contender moving on to this final round in Wilmington.

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Just as the clock neared 8 a.m., the nine competitors filed into the dining room to hear the final rules and guidelines of the first-ever, staff-only Iron Chef competition. Each individual was allotted exactly one hour to prepare their contending recipe, one dish that represented their cooking style and inspiration.

Upstairs, in Wilmington’s private banquet room, the five judges (myself included) crowded among a long table, impatiently waiting for the participating chefs’ creative concoctions to make their way to the second floor. Iron Hill’s Culinary Director Kevin Davies joined me on the critiquing panel, as did Iron Hill’s Assistant Director of Culinary Operations Chef Dan Bethard, and two of Iron Hill’s General Managers, Clint Wagner and Chris Berghaus.

There would be only one winner who’d go home with a crush-worthy $850 prize pack of kitchen equipment, and most importantly, the bragging rights for their Iron Hill location.

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Soon eye-catching, unique dishes came flying into our judging room, each unlike the other, packing vibrant colors and flavors, and most definitely offering us sneak peeks into the fine-tuned skill sets of each chef.

Chestnut Hill’s Machai Morin’s Deconstructed Buffalo Chicken fared particularly well with me, as he served up a sophisticated take on a favorite bar snack. Since his location’s brewer Paul Rutherford is an IPA master, Machai battered his chicken with just that, plus smoked paprika, and sided the protein with a velvety-smooth, from-scratch sauce that had been lightly-infused with bleu cheese.

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Maple Shade’s Matt Zabal’s Shrimp-Stuffed Long Hots were one of Kevin Davies most favored dishes, a memorable creation inspired by the chef’s regular visits to Chinatown. Lancaster’s Mike Casey’s Orange Chicken with mashed sweet potatoes was highly-regarded by all judges and the dish was even encouraged to be added to one of Brewmaster Kevin Walter’s upcoming beer dinners.

Media’s Justin Wise took this competitive opportunity to brush up on his Indian cooking skills and crafted a gorgeous serving of Chicken Tandoori with Stewed Eggplant. Newark’s Wendy whipped up a modernized take on Beef Wellington, which had me wishing old-school chefs would follow her lead (I could eat that every day!).

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North Wales’ Jason Artim’s perfect-for-summer dish of Prosciutto and Basil-Wrapped Sea Scallops rang memorable for me, as well, especially due to its incredible Abbey Dubbel and Raspberry Sorbet-swirled glaze.

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Phoenixville’s Augusto Chivalan’s Chicken Empanadas were also ideal for the steamy season, as they were light, flavorful pockets accented with white cabbage, cucumber and cilantro. And West Chester’s Romero’s popping plate of Mexican Surf and Turf Fajitas can’t be forgotten either, as it offered a whirlwind of enticing aromas and flavors, a pure representation of his culture and what he loves to cook.

But, while home field advantage meant nothing to us judges or influenced our discussion, it was Wilmington’s Miguel Aguilar who ultimately won over our taste buds. His dish, you ask? A one-of-a-kind Smoked Chicken Pizza crafted with a deep lineup of ingredients — each more tempting than the next. Just one bite of a slice screamed “success,” as his coupling of pepitas and pine nuts married nicely with roasted jalapeños, Pecorino Romano cheese, avocado and scallions.
Miguel, who was charming and also humbly shocked by his win, noted to the judges that he also whips up pizzas at another gig of his—and, that was where he conceptualized his game plan for this competition as he is “always trying to come up with something new.” dish, you ask? A one-of-a-kind Smoked Chicken Pizza crafted with a deep lineup of ingredients — each more tempting than the next. Just one bite of a slice screamed “success,” as his coupling of pepitas and pine nuts married nicely with roasted jalapeños, Pecorino Romano cheese, avocado and scallions.

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Cheers to you, Miguel, Iron Hill’s well-deserving Iron Chef Champion. I hope for the sake of gourmet pizza lovers near and far, this winning dish makes an appearance on Wilmington’s specials’ menu—in the near future.

By Amy Strauss, TheTownDish.com

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