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Community Comfort Food: Behind the Scenes at the Boalsburg Farmer’s Market Chef’s Competition

by on August 15, 2012 7:33 AM

I wanted to steal the bowl of sungold tomatoes.

Steve Spanelli, the sous chef at Otto’s, had just poured a container of these glistening, summertime gems into a large bowl. It was a beautiful sight, and a few onlookers ooh’d and ahh’d as if a painting had just been unveiled. “My mouth is watering,” commented one woman. So was mine.

We were gathered at the Boalsburg Farmer’s Market for the chef’s competition, an event that coincided with Local Foods Week. Chefs from six local restaurants were competing for the Market’s Golden Basket Award. The most important rule: They had to use fresh ingredients from market vendors.

The participating chefs include Jami Steffen from American Ale House, Zach Lorber from Foxdale, Harrison Schailey from Harrison’s, Andrew Monk from the Nittany Lion Inn (formerly of The Sustainable Kitchen), Craig Hamilton from the Village at Penn State, and sous chef Steve Spanelli and kitchen supervisors Jake Bahr and Alex Guralnick from Otto’s.

Lucky for me, I was invited to be one of the judges. Food critic is my dream job, and while that still seems elusive, Local Food Judge offered similar, albeit temporary, rewards.

Still, I was slightly worried. A long-running joke in my house is that I could never really be a food critic because I love food too much. Plus, I knew some of the chefs personally, and didn’t relish the job of choosing one exceptional dish over another.

I arrived as the chefs were setting up and, before long, pungent pork belly mingled with the sweet scent of ripe peaches and just-picked herbs. I had skipped lunch, and my appetite grew as each ingredient was chopped, dressed, and plated.

I circled the chef’s station a few times, but found myself lingering at those tomatoes.

A team of Otto’s chefs wearing “Will Work for Beer” t-shirts paired this summertime candy with Bruschedda, a specialty cheese from local market vendor Clover Creek Cheese Cellar. The Bruschedda—cheddar with sundried tomatoes, homegrown basil and a touch of garlic—accompanied the sungolds on slices of grilled bread. (The only thing missing was that beer.)

Those tomatoes, and the idea of pairing them with the local cheese, reminded me why we were here: to celebrate local food and the collaboration between area chefs and market vendors that often goes unnoticed.

But I was also here to eat. My fellow judges included State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham; WPSU’s Patty Satalia; Peter Bordi, director of Penn State’s Center for Food Innovation; and Kevin Kassab, director of State College’s Department of Health. The chefs presented one plate after another, and for 90 minutes we sampled and took notes.

What a pleasure, we remarked, to participate in an event that showcased something positive in State College. It was comfort food when we needed it most.

After much deliberation, we awarded the Golden Basket Award to Ale House chef Jami Steffen for his main course of swiss chard with ham hocks and pork belly and peaches. Steffen, who worked alongside Ale House cook Natalie Pulford, sourced his peaches from Harner Farm and his meat from Cow-a-Hen Farm. He also made a delicious baby green salad with watermelon and feta from Byler’s Farms, and an inventive dessert of blackberry and local tomato crumble. The blackberries were dressed with mint simple syrup and topped with almond butter cookie crumble. I had just a bite of that dessert, so I’m hoping Steffen has this on the Ale House menu.

Steffen appreciated the competition’s behind-the-scenes appeal. “It was nice to be able to show people that we’re able to use these local ingredients, and that there’s more going in these restaurants than just someone trying to make money—we’re trying to put good food out there.”

The judges also awarded “Best Salad” to chef Harrison Schailey (last year’s winner) for his melon cucumber salad (made with Tait cukes and Tait Farm Ginger Shrub) and “Best of the Market” to Team Otto’s for its Brushetta Bruschedda.

It’s a fitting award for Otto’s sous chef Steve Spanelli, formerly a farmer at Tait. This time last year he was out in the field picking tomatoes (after spending hundreds of hours nurturing their growth). Lucky for us, he’s now in the kitchen, turning them into summertime’s star ingredient.

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Michele Marchetti is a freelance writer and the former managing editor of StateCollege.com. Prior to moving to State College, she spent more than 10 years writing for national magazines. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Fortune, Fortune Small Business, Glamour, U.S. News & World Report, Runner's World, Good Housekeeping, Working Mother, Yoga Life and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MMStateCollege or contact her at mitchmarchetti@gmail.com
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