Things were clearly serious when some senior citizens, just hoping to purchase their groceries, almost ended up on the grill of a shopping cart. It wouldn’t have been pretty, getting flattened by a fast-moving scrum of a chef, chef’s assistant, a personal shopper, the press, a TV cameraman, and a handful of hangers-on. Nope, this “Albertsons Sizzling Santa Barbara Super Chef Cook-Off” on April 30 was no mere Iron Chef wannabe. Even in Goleta, far from tele-visual glamour, with no Alton Brown, let alone Mario Batali, in sight, and with judges as humble as your author, there was no denying: These chefs wanted to win.
To celebrate the re-opening of its Hollister & Pacific Oaks and Cliff & Meigs stores, Albertsons dreamed up a variation on every TV-watching foodie’s favorite pastime: the cook-off. The winner would take home a $250 Albertsons gift card, a statue that looked like Oscar in a toque, and a chance to donate a thousand bucks to the charity of his or her choice. And, of course, bragging rights.
It seems Albertsons hooked up with the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County early on to set up the event. Chef Brenda Simon of The Secret Ingredient catering explained after the event, “I had done a Foodbank event before, so [the nonprofit’s] Diane Durst called me to see if I’d be interested. I said sure and offered some other names of people I worked with in town.” Her competition ended up being Chef Conrad Woodul of Madison’s and Chef Jose Vazquez of Downtown Brewing Company.
They’d have 15 minutes to spend $50 shopping, then 30 minutes to cook a dish to wow the judges. And what a panel we were, even if none of us opted to take the Jeffrey Steingarten route and toss bitter barbs about taste: Goleta’s Mayor Michael Bennett, KCOY 12 morning anchor Patti Piburn, 2008 Old Spanish Days President Tim Taylor, Foodbank Board Member Cindy Halstead, and yours truly. I hoped to evince a Ted Allen vibe-kindly, but nobody’s fool.
Instead, the role of the genial fool was played by Albertsons store director Kelly Ary, who was given a microphone but not a whole lot of culinary knowledge. That said, he had fun with his emcee position, riffing, “He’s got all the burners going-that’s more than I use at my house. We’re dicing here. : I’m assuming that’s dicing.” Of course, the TV shows we watch cut out all the dull and confusing parts, but living through them live reminds you that much of cooking is time working a knife. Such slicing gets complicated in a makeshift kitchen in a grocery store parking lot where the just-mowed lawns add distinct whiffs of green to every dish and loud planes from the airport take off above. Let’s see what Bobby Flay could do in that kind of situation.
When Ary asked, “Have you ever done anything like this before?” Jose Vazquez didn’t miss a beat, quipping, “Every day at work.” Despite that, his work station remained the neatest-it must be good to be a Downtown Brewing dishwasher. But walk carefully in Vazquez’s kitchen. When News-Press photographer Steve Malone tripped a bit and righted himself on Vazquez’s station, the chef only half-joked, “Don’t mess with my plates, man.”
Turns out that we were going to get timed on our tasting and judging, too, but nobody told me that. Vazquez prepared a pan-seared salmon with boiled shrimp and fruit salsa over wilted greens, a dish that not only heightened the seafood’s actual taste but came in way under budget. Woodul opted for a more elaborate salmon, crusting his with an olive tapenade. He tended to overdo a bithis two asparagus, both fresh and pickled, cleverly kept the palate guessing, but his three sauces were maybe two too many, especially as his dish got served last and his balsamic reduction muddied.
Of course the winning dish was the one I voted for as number one. Simon cooked up a shrimp coconut curry over soba noodles that switched out the usual Thai accompaniment, peanuts, with almonds. While the dish had an attractive mix of colors, the flavors were even more beautiful: sweet, salty, sour, and hot in proper balance. And she didn’t win just because she bagged up our leftovers for us. Really.
Simon wasn’t the only one shocked at the finale. After winning, when she announced she’d donate her $1,000 to the Foodbank, Ary announced that Albertsons would give an additional $30,000 to the Foodbank. From the crowd, Foodbank’s Durst audibly gasped. At least no one had to resuscitate Simon’s assistant, Samantha Bean, who evidently confided to Simon early on, “Don’t ever have me do this again; I think I’m going to buckle.”
Not that a little competition made Simon herself nervous, for her stint as a chef-to-the-stars features a very prominent name: Michael Jackson. “That time he jumped up on the car and invited everyone at the trial back to the ranch for lunch, I was cooking for him,” she explained. After making an impromptu lunch for 3,600, cooking up something for even five discriminating judges in a parking lot is a piece of cake.