Monday, June 16, 2014

FoodTrek: Iron Vintner V - The Final Saga

It's with some bittersweetness and an anticipatory rumble in my tummy that I say this is the fifth and final year for the Iron Vintner Challenge, put together by Willows Lodge in Woodinville. It always felt like a proper ringing-in of summer, when Chef Bobby Moore would kick the tires and light the fires on the gigantic Viking grills that transformed the Lodge's peaceful patio into a full-on, outdoor Northwest Kitchen Stadium-Thunderdome. Washington winemakers become chefs for a night, challenged with secret ingredients and an unrelenting timer ticking down the precious 60 minutes they have to produce an appetizer and entree to wow a panel of celeb/culinary judges. Just another quiet summer night in Woodinville, eh...?

Iron Vintner's Round 2 elimination round - Grand Slam Lamb! Dish by Team Covington Cellars - Photo by Wasabi Prime

I've had the pleasure of attending the last few Iron Vintner (IVC) challenges, where local winemakers duke it out for culinary supremacy and badass bragging rights. It's held in one of the most idyllic places -- Willows Lodge is a beautiful boutique hotel nestled in Woodinville Wine Country, surrounded by a lovely garden and walking/bike paths. Not nearly the place you'd think would become a total Food Fight Club, complete with sharp objects, fire, and talkin' smack. Since this year was the final IVC, this is more like Iron Vintner All Stars -- every IVC champion from previous years challenge one another. It's basically like the Hunger Games where Katniss has to fight all the other champions -- and in this case, no hunger or weapons of deadly destruction are involved. The previous IVC champions, starting from Year One are: Darby English, Lisa Baer, Chris Gorman and Morgan Lee.  They all make impressive wines, so it just makes you envy them more for being such amazing cooks. This isn't just throwing hot dogs on a grill -- these winemakers know their stuff.

Willows Lodge's garden peacefulness belies a culinary warrior's spirit - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The first elimination round a couple of weeks ago had Darby English edging out Lisa Baer. This last week's elimination round pitted Chris Gorman of Gorman Winery vs Covington Cellar's Morgan Lee, in a lamb grand slam, where Chef Bobby ceremoniously revealed the secret ingredient and huge pieces of mutton were paraded out. The timer starts, and a mad flurry of actions ensure where the two teams put together dishes that showcase the secret ingredient.The audience gets to sit back and enjoy the show, wine in-hand -- and you're encouraged to wander around the outdoor kitchen, watching the dueling vintners cook up their gastronomic weapons of choice.

Impressive secret ingredient, equally impressive dishes - Photos by Wasabi Prime
What's impressive is the level of focus of all the champion challengers -- they won previous years for a good reason, and they're bringing their A++ game to this final IVC. They choose beautiful ingredients to work with, like fresh onion chives, and do impressive plating and presentation with ring molds and skewering meat and fish on lemongrass stalks. They'll make fresh pasta and use tricky gear like pressure cookers, and it all magically comes out looking like beautiful art on the plate when the timer goes "ding."

All you need is mad cooking skills and lucky Lincoln socks - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The food skills are serious, but the mood definitely isn't -- fun, silly, good-humored jabs between teams, and it's all of course for a good cause. Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center has been the beneficiary of IVC, which is a particularly unique organization that uses equine therapy to help disabled children and adults. I've had friends whose family members have benefited from this type of therapy, and it's a really gentle and nurturing approach for personal care. I can't imagine a better group to be on the receiving end of such a great yearly event -- even more reason why I'm a little sad it's the final year!

Time ticking down -- plate up, the final countdown is on - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Not surprisingly, the Gorman vs Lee lamb battle was very close -- the judges had a difficult time deciding between Team Gorman's rich lamb shanks with saffron risotto and Team Covington's complex pairing of lamb with fresh vegetables. But a winner must be named, so that the final championship round can take place this week, on 6/18. Covington Cellars' Morgan Lee was named Round 2 winner, moving him forward to battle Darby English, which is rather fitting, since English was the first IVC champion in 2010.

The fires of competition burned hot - a Round 2 champion was named: Morgan Lee of Covington Cellars! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The final championship round is already sold out, but there's an After Party celebrating ALL the IVC champions at Willows Lodge, and as far as I know, tickets are still available. I'm looking forward to the big farewell to Iron Vintner and to wish Willows Lodge luck on their next big event series to celebrate the diverse talents of our local winemakers. Cheers to all!

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