The Bite of Bend had something for every appetite - $1 bites of food from restaurants across Central Oregon, desserts ranging from cake to frozen yogurt, massive quantities of beer (more than 50 kegs were consumed during the weekend) and a mixology tent where, according to my red-faced friend, "They let everyone drink all weekend for only $10! Five dollars a day! It's like stealing!"
But for me, the Top Chef stage was the biggest draw and somehow I weaseled my way into landing a judging spot for the competition on Saturday. Now, it's one thing to watch Top Chef on TV where careful editing and "1812 Overture"-style music results in chefs magically whipping up dishes in minutes. But at the Bite of Bend's Top Chef stage, one thing was apparent: this shit is hard work.
During my tenure as a judge, it was the Jackalope Grill's Tim Garling vs. Soupcon's Steven Draheim and Tart's Joe Benevento vs. Café 3456's Dave Hatfield sweating it out in the preliminary round. Each chef had a surprise protein and a modest pantry full of ingredients to work with to create two dishes - one appetizer and one main course - in 45 minutes. In the time it took me and the other judges to drink a glass of wine and chat with the host a couple of times, each chef had made two dishes.
Even more amazing was that everything tasted pretty fantastic. But the real trick was to use the secret ingredient in a unique manner. Chefs were judged not just on taste, but also originality, plating and best use of the secret ingredient.
On Saturday, Boken, Amalia's, Jackalope Grill and Tart took their respective rounds, and both Jackalope and Tart turned out mouth-watering and creative dishes during my judging session that I couldn't stop eating. Jackalope won me over with a scallop and creamed corn dish that brought out the sweetness of scallops without overwhelming their delicate flavor, and Tart mixed shrimp with bacon and wrapped it in leafy greens to create a sausage-like appetizer.
In the end, chef Tim Garling from the Jackalope Grill beat out Amalia's in the final round with his take on albacore tuna. But each chef gave an impressive performance - one that, come to think of it, was slightly magical. Perhaps it's not all fancy TV editing after all.