Dining With Denise Neil

Celebrity & Chef Cookoff sells out, names new champions

Chef Ben George plates his Asian-inspired dish, which earned him the title at the Celebrity & Chef Cookoff.
Chef Ben George plates his Asian-inspired dish, which earned him the title at the Celebrity & Chef Cookoff. The Wichita Eagle

Wichita has a long list of food-related fundraisers each year.

And the Celebrity & Chef Cookoff, a fundraiser for the Orpheum Theatre that drew a sold-out crowd of 550 to Intrust Bank Arena on Tuesday night, is becoming one of the most popular.

This year’s crowd was the largest one in the event’s 14-year history. People paid $90 a ticket to sample food from local restaurants including Kanai, Molino’s, Lou’s Charcuteria and Cocktails and Taste and See. They bid on live and silent auction packages, many of which were restaurant-related.

But the highlight was watching well-known local chefs pair with well-known local celebrities to cook a dish in 45 minutes, using food provided in an on-site pantry. The secret ingredient was pineapple.

I’ve been judging this event for years, and I can tell you that the chefs all take it quite seriously. Winning this title seems more important to them than winning almost any other cookoff title. Jason Febres of Taste and See has won so many years that he agreed to serve as a judge instead this year. I also was a judge, alongside Bobby Lane, also a longtime winner of the event and the owner/chef at Chester’s Chophouse.

Tanya Tandoc, the beloved local restaurant owner and chef who was killed last week, also was slated to be a judge. Orpheum president Jennifer Allen dedicated the evening to her memory, and several chefs wore black armbands to honor her.

Among the eight competing teams were Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell and Cafe 402 owner Jason Fisher; Hyatt chef Paul Freimuth and Occidental Management’s Gary Oborny; and Bella Vita Bistro chef Adrian Prudhomme DeLodder and Freddy’s Frozen Custard co-founder Scott Redler.

The judges had the difficult job of tasting all the dishes and picking a winner. The tasting was a blur of rare steak, tender pork, crunchy quinoa, crispy chicken skin and molecular gastronomy techniques that resulted in unexpected flavors and textures. (Chef Prudhomme DeLodder had us inject our chicken soup with a garnish from a hospital syringe. )

In the end, the winner was Intrust Bank Arena executive chef Ben George, who was paired with Adam Mills, the head of the Kansas Restaurant & Hospitality Association. George is a regular competitor in local cooking competitions, and he usually creates some type of amazing pork dish. He decided to step out of his comfort zone on Tuesday and give the judges something we did not expect from him: An Asian presentation that included a soup that had pineapple in the broth and a quail egg floating on top. All the judges agreed that his dish was best.

Second place went to newcomer Fisher, whose Cafe 402 is inside the downtown YMCA. And third place went to last year’s co-champion, Prudhomme DeLodder.

Click through my photos attached to this post to get a flavor for the evening.