MARCELLUS | The star of the show at the third annual EnvIRONmental Chef culinary cook off Sunday was the donated bounty of local farmers.
The event brought area chefs outdoors to cook on the fly locally grown and raised produce to raise money to bring natural science programming to area school children.
Baltimore Woods Nature Center's Nature in the City program is available in every elementary school in the Syracuse City School District and some schools in Cayuga County. Students learn about energy conservation from the center's naturalists, who travel to the schools to educate how to reduce carbon emissions in city neighborhoods.
"We had 11 schools last year, but this year we have all 19 elementary schools in Syracuse," said Mary Kate Hartmann, executive director of Baltimore Woods.
The fundraiser saw area chefs compete in head-to-head fashion, incorporating locally sourced ingredients into dishes they served to approximately 200 hungry event supporters.
On a sun-dappled afternoon, folks spent the day in the tree-filled setting, breathing in not only fresh air but aromas of spice-tinged onions and garlic sizzling in pans and woks on outdoor grills and heating elements.
In just 90 minutes, four chefs and their small crews of sous chefs created taste bud tantalizing dishes using beets, kale, dill, eggplant and other ingredients harvested from area farms.
In a las- minute twist, chefs were handed a mystery ingredient they integrated into their creations. Two chef teams received baskets of beets to contend with, and the other two teams dealt with bowls of creme fraiche made from buttermilk and heavy cream compliments of event sponsor Byrne Dairy.
Joelle Mollinger of Joelle's French Bistro created a fall-off-the-bone chicken tagine dusted with Morrocan spices using poultry from local grower Shotwell Brook Farms. Ninth grader J.W. Simmons, 14, is the proprietor of the farm that feeds its chickens, turkeys, rabbits, pigs and cattle a diet of fresh grass and clover.
"Animals are just like people," the young farmer told emcee and local broadcaster Carrie Lazarus. "You can tell when they're sick. Their ears get cold, and the chickens will huddle up."
Grass-fed animals, Simmons said, are a healthy choice because the chlorophyll in the consumed grass works as a natural detoxifier during digestion and cleans the bird from the inside.
"He's the face of the future of farming," co-host Thom Filicia said of Simmons.
Lazarus and Filicia, a nationally recognized designer, were the day's emcees and kept attendees entertained with their friendly banter. During the cook-off, the duo walked around the outdoor kitchens chatting with chefs, guests and the farmers whose heirloom tomatoes, pole beans and purple stripe garlic flavored their dishes.
"Let's give some love to the farmers who work so hard and deal with a fickle mother nature," Lazarus said as warm applause erupted from the casually seated crowd.
Ron Meyers and Ashley Dayer of Marigold Farm had their cherry tomatoes featured in a deviled Cobb salad appetizer crafted by Luke Szabo of The Mandana Inn. Szabo and Steve Landon of Vernak Farms did not compete but provided appetizers at outdoor stations close to the center's entrance to whet attendee appetites.
Elevating the potato to new heights, Landon crafted a feta scalloped potato from Andover potatoes fresh from the Cornell Potato Project.
Dayer was happy to have a basket of her bumper crop beans used by the chefs and felt the event that connected the dots from farm field to frying pan to plate was an apt pairing of the professionals that bring healthy food to the masses.
"It's exciting to see the center support local foods," she said.
Local pastry chef Allyson Landon of the Sherwood Inn delighted with a dessert of Bee Vodka poached pears atop shortbread disks with marzipan mousse.
An afternoon spent tasting portions of fine cuisine, sweet treats complemented by wine and beer crafted by local vintners and brewers in the outdoors was summed up by one sated guest.
"Because this is taking place outside, I'm telling myself that it's healthy," joked Doug McRae of Liverpool.