Dining With Denise Neil

Siena’s Ben George wins cookoff, introduces new menus

Chef Ben George addresses the crowd after winning the Old Town Farmers’ Market’s Iron Chef competition.
Chef Ben George addresses the crowd after winning the Old Town Farmers’ Market’s Iron Chef competition. The Wichita Eagle

Throughout his career as a chef in Wichita, Chef Ben George has always been game to participate in cook-offs for a cause. And he just keeps participating, whether he wins or not.

On Saturday, he won.

George, who is the new head chef at the Ambassador Hotel and its restaurant, Siena Tuscan Steakhouse, was named the winner of the annual Iron Chef Competition at the Old Town Farmers’ Market on Saturday.

The event always draws a big crowd of spectators, and it did on Saturday, too. Five chefs from around Wichita competed and were asked to prepare a meal in about an hour using a common “secret ingredient,” which this year was kettle corn. There’s long been a kettle corn vendor at the Farmers’ Market, and manager Pat Randleas said she thought it would provide an interesting twist to to the competition. The chefs also are allowed to shop for ingredients from the vendors at the market.

George prepared some deep fried pork, cabbage and kettle corn tacos plus a gorgeous plate of medium rare steak served with sweet potatoes and garnished with kettle corn. I was a judge along with Travis Russell, the chef and owner at Public at the Brickyard, and John Michael, the head of the Butler County culinary program.

The other contestants were Taste and See’s Jason Febres, Wesley Medical Center’s executive chef Curtis Isley, Travis Joy from Harvest Kitchen/Bar in the Hyatt, and Jeremy Pacacha, a chef with Eurest Dining Services. All made interesting use of the secret ingredient, including Febres, who brought many of his scientific cooking tools along to demonstrate for the crowd. He smoked his kettle corn using a special smoking gun, and he turned balsamic vinegar into crunchy balsamic pearls to garnish his gazpacho.

George, coincidentally, has just launched his new menu at Siena Tuscan Steakhouse. He took over the job in April, after previous chef Marshall Roth left, and has been busy re-imagining the menu since then.

He wanted to offer more Tuscan-style dishes, he said, and make the prices approachable for even casual diners. He said he plans to change the menus seasonally.

The lunch menu includes a build-your-own mac and cheese made with a beer-infused sauce. Customers can choose whether they want the dish toasted or not toasted, with bread crumbs or without, and they can add in extras including caramelized onions, tomatoes, bacon, mushrooms, chicken sausage, steak, jalapeno sausage and more. It costs $9 plus extra for add-ins.

Lunch also has several pastas, pizzas, salads, sandwiches and a burger.

The new dinner menu has a steak frites, several high-end steaks, lots of pastas and dishes including honey-cured pork belly confit, coffee-braised short ribs, a cold smoked veal chop and more.

Lunch dishes range from about $8 to $15. Several dinner entrees are available for less than $20.

Also, George wants customers to know that if they park in the hotel’s garage and dine at the restaurant, he can validate their tickets so that they don’t have to pay for parking.

You can peruse the new dinner menu here and the lunch menu here.