When Source publisher Aaron Switzer asked me to be a judge in the Iron Chef competition at the Bite of Bend last weekend, I thought, "How hard could it be?"
Because I don't watch television, I had never seen the show. But thanks to the pervasiveness of pop culture, I knew there would be two chefs competing head-to-head, a secret ingredient, and some creative dishes. My only hope was that I wouldn't have to eat anything disgusting, like shrimp or scallops, oysters or organs.
The first competition on Saturday was a breeze, at least for me. Two chefs faced off over game hen. Both appetizers and entrees were exquisitely presented and delicious. There was shrimp involved, but not too much. There was wine and sunshine. Life was good.
Blue Olive at Brasada Ranch and Jackalope Grill went head to head in the second round, but I remember the secret ingredient the most: pork belly. Basically, this is a fresh slab of bacon. Anyone who knows me knows I love bacon. In my world, the food pyramid is wrapped in bacon. I host an annual Pork of July party. When emcee Sandy Henderson of BendFilm asked the judges how we felt about pork belly, I gushed that I was in hog heaven.
My fellow judges were in agreement. TV show host Kristi Miller and Commute Options' Kim Curley both professed their affection for bacon and for pork in general. When Jason Logan, Chef of Bistro Corlise, said there should be a bacon flag, he was cheered, and not just by Jeff Hunt from Marz Bistro wearing a T-shirt that read, "Bacon: the Gateway Meat." Not surprisingly, all the dishes in this round were fantastic. To my delight, one of the entrees boldly featured thick slabs of fried pork belly.
Upon arriving for another shift of judging on Sunday afternoon, I learned that the secret ingredient in the previous round had been octopus, and that oysters had been featured some time before that.
I began to worry. I glanced over at Lance Schultz of S&P Meats, who had chosen and provided all the secret ingredients. He was suppressing a grin.
When Henderson revealed that the secret ingredient would be kangaroo meat, I winced. Fellow judge Andre Jensen and I texted a mutual friend: "bring us beer." Our Inversion IPAs arrived before the kangaroo Tartare and kangaroo Carpaccio, followed by seared kangaroo steaks. Perhaps the bitter brew tricked my palate, but the kangaroo tasted just like lean beef. For that, I was grateful.
I had almost recovered from eating marsupial when the final round's secret ingredient was announced: veal sweetbreads. Also known as offal, sweetbreads are organs. To be specific, these sweetbreads were the thymus glands of tender, young calves. Uncooked, they looked like mutant jellyfish made of chicken. Cooked, they resembled flattened brains.
Fortunately, in the hands of skilled chefs from Jen's Garden (in Sisters) and Fireside Red, the dreaded sweetbreads were quite palatable, as were the hazelnut-encrusted oyster and the shrimp and scallop stacked salad. In the end, Fireside Red's Jeremy Baumgartner won the grueling two-day competition, and he will go on to compete in the Iron Chef competition at the Bite of Oregon in August.
Good luck, Jeremy, and thank you for the palate-expanding experience! - Renée Davidson