Cape May Food and Wine Festival, Part II: The Cook-Off

Day #2 of our adventures in Cape May had us back to work (whip crack).
We were headed to the Chef’s Cook-Off at the Harvest Wine Festival at the Cape May Winery, and the emcee of this event, Gary Monterosso, had suggested to the nice people at MAC (Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities) that were serve as judges. Now, if you’re an avid craft brew fan like we are, you know who Gary is: one of the most well-known writers and experts on the subject of beer in America. Although this was primarily a wine festival, beer was going to be represented during a lecture/tasting of his, as well. And for him to have contacted us on our blog out of nowhere, saying he was a fan of it…well, let’s just say we were blown away. Included with the ticket for the event was a trolley ride from the Washington Square Mall area (which is the quintessential “town square” of historic Cape May, in walking distance from almost all of the hotels and B&B’s in the area) directly to the winery- a good thing, too, since the idea was to eat and sample wine all day long. After we walked about, investigating the food vendors and soaking in the music, we easily found Gary in the gathering crowd; wearing a low-key Hawaiian shirt and a friendly smile, he instantly put us at ease as we chatted and went over the preliminaries.

The competing chefs would have a set number of ingredients to work with; and similar to Iron Chef, they were not told what they would be until the last moment. We were really happy to learn the “secret protein” was salmon.

Before we knew it, Gary grabbed a microphone and started addressing the crowd, and we knew it was time to begin. After introducing us (and generously plugging our blog), it was time to meet the up-and-coming-chef contestants.

Contestant #1 was Peter Brown, a server and table-side cook from Aleathea’s (and because our camera is becoming inconsistent with photo quality these days, the only decent pictures we have of him are his hands as he worked-sorry Peter!). Contestant#2 was Louis Solameto, Head Chef of the Good Fish Grill. And Contestant #3 was Daniel Otero, Corporate Chef for Nordstrom’s in Cherry Hill (interestingly enough, Daniel once trained with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry).

Gary introducing Chef Daniel Otero

Here were the rules: the chefs had exactly 15 minutes to take a look at the ingredients, plan, and execute their dish- harder than Iron Chef! At the word “Go!”, the chefs sprung into action.
And although it was Gary’s, John’s, and my job to provide commentary to the crowd to keep them posted as to what was going on, it was all we could do to try to stay out of their way and let them cook!

It was interesting to see how each chef incorporated the use of the ingredients: Chef Brown used the squash as a wrapper for the fish, and created a savory citrus sauce…

…while Chef Solameto went for a straight-forward, simple approach to the vegetables….

…and Chef Otero went for a spicier, more innovative direction by including Asian pear in his dish.
But here’s the thing: when you have three chefs that are good at what they do and are all competing for a title, barring any impromptu disasters, all of the dishes are going to be good. Take a look at the final results:

Peter Brown (Aleathea’s)

Louis Solometo (Good Fish Grill)
Daniel Otero (Nordstrom’s)

Luckily, we had official score cards to fill out and guide our decision, with such categories as originality, taste, and presentation. The time limit also creates opportunities for one-time gaffes like under-cooking the middle of the fish or forgetting to season some elements: otherwise, we’d probably have a three-way tie. And we have to admit, it felt weird and a bit rude to sample everything in front of a large group of people, who weren’t going to get any! After John and I tallied up the score cards, we had a winner… Chef Solameno! Maybe it was the herb butter that did it…

Winning chef Louis Solameno, congratulated by Gary Monterosso

As if that weren’t enough fun for us that day, Gary was giving a beer lecture after wards in the “barrel room”, and we weren’t going to miss an opportunity to expand our craft beer knowledge. Although this seemed to be a “beginner’s lecture” (we were familiar with the styles he spoke about), I did learn something new-like wine, you can cellar certain kinds of beer. Now, I’d had Thomas Hardy and Sam Adams Triple Bock Ales that sipped like cognac, but I didn’t know you could age some of them on your own! And, of course, it was great to sample some basic American craft brews: Michelob’s Shock Top Belgian White, Ginger Wheat, Dunkel Weisse, and Hop Hound. While I thought I’ve made better ginger-spiced beers and the Hop Hound is just another in the trend of “how much hops can you take?”, we did like the Dunkel Weisse and Shocktop. After the lecture, we chatted with Gary (who by now seemed like an old friend), and were introduced to his wife and daughter, who were also great to talk with. We mentioned that we were planning to attend the beer pairing dinner he was hosting at Aleathea’s on Tuesday, and were invited to sit with them…well, of course we accepted! But that event, dear readers, is another post altogether.

We also got to take a few unopened bottles with us. What more could we want? Well, after the lecture, we realized we had almost 40 minutes until the next trolley. What to do? It was really rough- first, we were forced to check out the winery’s new digs. If you haven’t been to the Cape May Winery since their tasting room consisted of a little shed (like us), you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise. Here’s a few pics to give you a taste of the atmosphere now:

In the tasting room, we decided to see if they had any of the Pinot Grigio that we had at the food and wine pairing the night before; unfortunately, they were completely out, not a bottle left until next spring. Sigh- what a tease! We decided to grab a taste of Hawk Haven‘s offerings (who also had a stand at the festival), and relax on the patio with a view of the chardonnay grapes:

Not the worst way to kill some time on a gorgeous fall day….

As we headed back to town, we realized, ironically, that we were starving! It’s kind of hard to gobble a whole plate of food in front of a crowd who is watching and waiting for your verdict- but we had to eat… as we walked by the Cape May Fish Market back at the Washington Street Mall, I was craving some oysters to go with the beers Gary gave us in my purse. Cape May Salts, to be exact, and they had ’em. Now, I had seen wildly varying reviews on this place- and it seems the seafood is fresh, but the more complicated the dish, the worse the reviews get. Our experience was good, though we admittedly kept it simple. Some Cape May Salts on the half shell…

….crab claw cocktail….

….a crabcake, coated in panko, with the inside consisting of nothing more than crabmeat

…a plate of fried calamari (the crispy, herbed, and peppered batter was unusual but welcome, coating tender-perfect calamari). The unusual lobster roll was served on a traditional split bun, but hold the mayo: this roll was nothing more than fresh, warm lobster tossed with melted butter. Washed down with a few beers, it was the perfect ending to the day.

Ahhhh-it’s good to be a food blogger.



4 thoughts on “Cape May Food and Wine Festival, Part II: The Cook-Off

  1. Looks like lots of fun! Would have loved to get down to Cape May Food and Wine Festival but our soccer schedule rules over any other weekend plans.

  2. Food blogging = love.You are a good food blogger and always have the best posts about events. Because of your blog I've hit up a few that I might not have known about.Keep up the great work!Nice photos of a cool cookoff.

  3. Lisa and John, yes, we now are "old" friends. It was a great couple of days with you and I was honored to have you judge the event and dine with us at our table. I always get excited to learn that fans of good food also appreciate a well-crafted beer. I will continue to enjoy your blog and look forward to some special things that I predict will take place for you in the not-too-distant future.Gary

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