Charity food fight in Northampton

By Andrew Sheridan

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Courtesy of Myspace

Food has always been a major part of any culture. In American culture, however, the emphasis on new and interesting food has been on the rise. Recent years have seen a surge of interest in food culture, leading to the rise of the celebrity chef, and of food-based competitions. This Saturday, Iron Chef Michael Symon brought a bit of both to Northampton’s Calvin Theatre with an event called “Iron Cook.”

Held in support of the local charity group Friends of Children, the fifth annual “Iron Cook” battle featured Chef Symon, of TV’s “Iron Chef America” and “How to Cook Like An Iron Chef.” Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Symon was brought to Western Massachusetts by his longtime friend Lou Ekus, a supporter of the Friends of Children.

Local chefs Greg Monette, Michelangelo Wescott and Maggie Zaccara were on stage on suited up to compete, as they had been chosen by popular vote in an online competition. When he was instructed to pick a challenger from his opponents, Symon shocked the audience by choosing all three to cook as a team against him in pan-to-pan combat.

Modeled after “Iron Chef America,” Friday’s “Iron Cook” battle required each team to construct four different dishes, each featuring the night’s secret theme ingredient.

Friday night’s food of focus was squash, a wide category whose diversity was well utilized by the competitors. The well-represented variety was pumpkin, but butternut, acorn and spaghetti squash were all featured in various dishes through the night.

The feel of the event was far more relaxed than a typical “Iron Chef” battle. The announcers seemed more interested in chatting with the competitors than following the culinary action. The competition itself was also friendlier. Chef Symon spent much of the battle multitasking, interacting with the audience and sending over bits of cooked meat to his opponents. While the local chefs had their noses to the grindstone to a greater degree, they still managed some friendly trash-talk and to trade dishes.

The action at “Iron Cook” may not have been as intense as its televised counterpart, but that wasn’t the only focus of the evening. The main goal of the event was to raise funds for Friends of Children, a local group dedicated to helping children in the foster care system. With a miniscule ratio of caseworkers to children, the under-funded Massachusetts foster system is all too often a breeding ground for fraud and abuse. Friends of Children dedicates itself to making sure no kids are left to fall through the cracks, and they do this through community advocacy, legal representation and mentoring programs.

During the battle, volunteers held an auction to determine who came home with the knives, pots and pans used by the chefs. Calphalon donated the cookware for the event, and Symon upped the value by signing every item sold.

The dishes whichh made it to the judges’ table were as diverse as their architects. The challengers plated wild boar stuffed with wild mushrooms and squash, a Thanksgiving smorgasbord of wild bass and stuffing, and chocolate-pumpkin crepes served with pumpkin milkshakes. Chef Greg Monette was singled out by the Iron Chef for his seared duck breast with acorn squash hash, and received an impressive trophy for the achievement.

Chef Symon showed his Sicilian roots with ricotta gnocchi made with pumpkin and acorn squash. He also wowed the judges with butternut-lobster soup, smoked duck with roasted pork, and a sweet potato pie topped with bacon-infused caramel.

In the end, the iron chef came out on top, but the real winners were the children. Thanks to the thousands raised through ticket sales, auction items, and corporate sponsorship, the Friends of Children will be able to continue serving the community by helping those who need it most.

Andrew can be reached at [email protected]