Things Heat Up in the 2017 Iron Chef Culinary Competition
The clock reads 8:21 AM as the kitchen is alive with the sounds of sizzling, chopping, and the excited whispers of Iron Hill employees. Though the restaurant doesn’t open for another three and a half hours, three cooks are busily preparing their own unique, signature dishes to impress three distinguished judges. Scents of citrus and coconut waft through the air and are gently replaced with smells of buttery sea scallops and Thai spices. The final round of the Iron Chef competition is under way, and the kitchen is just heating up.
The Iron Chef is an annual competition between behind-the-counter staff members of all 12 locations of Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant. Hourly kitchen staff members, ranging from dishwashers to chefs, are invited to create their best dishes in hopes of winning the title of Iron Chef. Each location holds an internal first round to decide one staff member to move on to the regionals. Three regional rounds—with four locations competing in each—are then held to determine the final three contestants who will move on to the championship. This year, Phoenixville’s Ben Summers, Newark’s Austin Ruby, and Maple Shade’s Mike Goldsboro are going head-to-head in the championship round. These three have proven their culinary skills twice already, and are eager to impress the judges one final time.
While the kitchen is bustling, three acclaimed judges patiently await each dish in a separate room. The first judge is Matt Petfield, the Executive Chef at Big Fish Grill in Wilmington, Delaware. Iron Hill Brewery’s own Assistant Culinary Director, Dan Bethard, is the second judge. The final judge, Brian Ashby, is the owner of 8th & Union Kitchen. Each dish is brought out separately, and labeled either red, yellow, or blue, as to keep the identity of the chef anonymous.
Ben, an hourly kitchen manager from Phoenixville, prepares a breakfast for dinner dish, featuring a molasses pancake, chorizo, shrimp, banana, and singed egg yolk. The fluffy pancake sits atop the base of chorizo and shrimp, encircled by the singed egg yolk. The plate is garnished with banana, and finished with playful drips of molasses around the edges.
Mike, an hourly kitchen manager from Maple Shade, enters Spicy Thai Chicken featuring jasmine rice, a citrus salad, and smoked sea salt in a caramel coconut broth. The delicately blackened Thai chicken rests on the bed of citrus and rice. Light yellows and reds of the salad pop against the caramel colored broth.
Austin, a line cook from Newark, enters Almond Crusted Sea Scallops complete with avocado-dijon puree and an arugula apple salad with a citrus-vinegar dressing. The dish radiates with charming earthy tones. Bright greens of the apple and avocado contrast the scallops’ dark brown, almond crusted sear.
The judges write notes as they meticulously taste each dish. They must rate each one on appearance, taste, and creativity. The judges’ faces change from blissful to completive as they try to experience and express the complexity of each dish. Once the judges have tried the three dishes, they discuss each one in detail. The three judges go back and forth presenting their favorite components of the three dishes. The scallops have an incredible sear, and the judges love the lightness of the dish, but the salad is overpowered by the citrus dressing. The chicken dish is visually stunning and seasoned perfectly, but there is an excessive amount of coconut in the sauce. The molasses pancake is the most creative of the dishes, and the chorizo and banana pairing has a comfort food shrimp-and-grits feel to it.
After comparing the highlights of each dish, the judges reach a decision and the chefs are brought forward. Tensions are high as the judges critique and praise each dish. The winner of this competition receives a prize equivalent to $500 and considerable bragging rights. It’s a tough choice, but in the end, Ben Summers of Phoenixville is named the 2017 Iron Hill Iron Chef and is given $100 worth of compensatory credit to be used at any Iron Hill location as well as $400 to purchase culinary gear. This isn’t Ben’s first time winning, either—last year he took home the 2016 Iron Chef title for his Cinnamon Toast Crunch Crusted Mahi-Mahi with Coconut Rice and Sriracha Gastrique.
After the competition is over, Iron Hill Executive Chef, Dave Foster, congratulates Summers as well as the other contestants. He firmly believes that this competition not only benefits employees, but sets apart the company as a whole. “[I]f we can foster these creative ideas now it will only encourage others as well as separate us even more from [Iron Hill Brewery] competitors. Who else does this? No one!”.
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With 12 locations in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey, there’s an Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant near you. We specialize in handcrafted beers and fresh, from-scratch New American cuisine. Monthly releases vary by location, so scout out our beers on tap and visit us soon.
Content provided by Addie Orrison Photos provided by Sophia DiPersio