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Chefs Compete in a Delicious 10th Annual Cast Iron Cook Off


This past Saturday, chefs from West Virginia and Virginia came to Charleston to compete in the 10th annual Cast Iron Cook Off. On Friday students from five West Virginia high schools also competed in the first annual Junior Cast Iron Cook Off.

High School Culinary Students Compete

Smells of leeks and mushrooms sauteing in olive oil filled the air, as I walked through the doors of the West Virginia Culture center. The entire lobby was filled with students racing against the clock to prepare food in cast iron skillets.

I talked with 16-year-old Amanda Harper, a Junior at Tucker County High School.

“Today we are cooking a mixed vegetable medley with locally grown produce. We're doing a seared duck breast with brandied cherry sauce.”

Amanda was working on desert- delicately building stacks of whole what shortcakes, which were topped with 3 kinds of fresh berries. The shortcakes were also filled with organic yogurt and marscapone cheese.”

Amanda's team from Tucker County High School won the grand prize in this year's Junior Cast Iron Cook Off. This is the first year that the Cast Iron Cool Off has featured a Junior competition for high school culinary students. Many of them are enrolled  in the ProStart program, which trains high school students for careers in the food industry.

Chefs Race Against the Clocks

The next day at the Marriott Hotel, a dozen teams of professional chefs from West Virginia and Virginia were busy creating their four course meals for the judges. The Thyme Bistro Team was making a desert that I could hear frying from across the room.

Chef Pamela Stevens – Mia Margherita (Morgantown, W.Va.) won people's choice and best entree in the Cast Iron Cook-off this year.

“This is a blackberry Rangoon with Marscapone cheese, and there will be a lemon chiffon tart to go along with it," said Robert Hinton, who was cooking with the Thyme Bistro team. He was also teaching Hunter Raynes, a teenaged chef, how to fry the star shaped dumplings.

Hunter is a first year student with the ProStart high school program in Putnam County. Although his school didn't compete in the Junior Cast Iron Cook Off, he was able to participate in the professional competition by joining the Thyme Bistro Team. Incidentally, Hunter is also the "dot" mascot at Poca High School.

And the Winner Is...

Chef Geoff Krause is the chef leader of the Thyme Bistro Team. They won the Grand Champion award at the Cast Iron Cook Off this year. His team also won Best Menu for 21st Century Appalachian Cuisine.

whole wheat shortcake, make by Amanda Harper, of Tucker County high school.

Celebrating Culinary Stars and Creating Celebrity Farmers

The Cast Iron competition is more than awarding gourmet chefs- it's about celebrating Appalachian chefs who use local ingredients in their cooking. Chef Dale Hawkins has been a part of this competition since it began 10 years ago.

“It really was economic development driven, but during the process education became so much a part of it. That it was how do we create these rising stars in West Virginia, not only in food but also how do we create celebrity farmers? And just how do we showcase them and lift those people up and this is what West Virginia's about,” said chef Dale Hawkins, owner of Fish Hawke Acres Farm.

A 14-Year-Old Rabbit Farmer

One of the newest celebrity farmers is a 14-year-old 4-H farmer named Kody Fowler, of Morgantown. For the last year, he's been raising rabbits and selling them to the Atomic Grill Restaurant.

Kody's mother, Jennifer Turner, says her son has sold over 200 rabbits in the last year. She said they don't take up a lot of room on their farm and are given a lot of space to run and play.

“It started with three little bunnies on the farm. We've exploded, as rabbits reproduce very quickly. We like them more of a family life atmosphere. Everybody gets out and plays They have playpens that they get out in at least 2-3 times a week, where these bunnies can get out and play with each other, so that we keep them healthy,” said Kody's mom.


Cooking With Local Rabbit

Chef Emily Zimmerman-Smith of the Atomic Grill said that cooking with local rabbit is really very easy.

“Not as gamey as people think. It's a really friendly meat. I think Kody should sell more rabbits and it should be served in more places.”

For the cast Iron Cook-off, Chef Emily Zimmerman-Smith prepared Kody's rabbit with a sauce that was made from local red wine, chicken stock, and butter. For this dish, she won an award for the Best Use of Local Appalachian Protein.

Highlighting rising culinary stars in Appalachia is what makes this the most important cooking competitions in the state, says Time Urbanic, one of this year's judges, and chef at Cafe Cimino.

“This event really discovers new talent among the young and the old. And it also starts some trends for what we can expect for what we can see on the tables throughout all of West Virginia,” said Tim Urbanic

If this year's Cast Iron Cook Off does set any trends, then you might be seeing more local rabbit on menus. The Grand Champion Team, Thyme Bistro, also used rabbit for their main course. Chef Geoff Krauss said he got the rabbit from Gardner Farms in Wood County. He also used ingredients from at least seven different farms, the majority of which are located in counties near his restaurant in Weston.

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