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Anything But the Oink

Pork's versatility will take center stage on Saturday, when Brix 25 chef Thad Lyman and "Top Chef" alumni Kevin Gillespie square off at the Gig Harbor Wine and Food Festival's Celebrity Chef Cook-Off.

Ask a culinary whiz what’s so great about pork and he or she may respond with an old adage: It’s because the only part of the pig you can't use is the oink.

That versatility will take center stage on Saturday at the second annual Gig Harbor Wine and Food Festival’s Celebrity Chef Cook-off.

Pig is set as the featured ingredient in the competition between local Chef Thad Lyman of and Top Chef alumni . Both are pork enthusiasts, but it will be up to three judges on Saturday to determine whose porcine prowess is really something to squeal about.

"There are a million things you can do with [a pig]. It's the most versatile thing in the kitchen," said Lyman, whose only hint as to the dishes he’s planning is that one will be a dessert. "It is sometimes not as well respected as the things like the filet mignon and lobster, but that doesn't mean it's any less quality ingredient."

This year’s wine and food festival, which will take place on the grounds of the between noon and 6 p.m., is still riding the high from last year’s sell-out event.

The festival benefits both the museum and the Gig Harbor Historic Waterfront Association. Ticket sales, numbering about 500 at last count, already matches last year’s attendance. Exhibitors have more than doubled, with 54 Northwest and California wineries, breweries, restaurants and food-product providers offering samples in the grand tasting tent. There are also 16 scheduled classes and demonstrations, on everything from filleting a salmon to pairing beer and cheese, before Lyman and Gillespie square off at 4:30 p.m.

Lyman said he's a fan of chef Gillespie, the executive chef and co-owner of Atlanta’s Woodfire Grill whose earthy southern fare made him a finalist and fan favorite on the sixth season of the hit reality show Top Chef.

"I really like the guy. I've really never met him, but watching him on TV, he had a personality that I liked," he said. "I was sad when he lost because I liked his style of food. He just seemed to put out some deep flavors. It was just about stuff on the plate, and I liked that."

But come Saturday, Lyman, who boasts more than 20 years of professional experience, won't be rooting for his fellow red-bearded competitor.

"I've never been a guy who was afraid of putting my neck out." Lyman said. "If you're gonna go at all, go big."

The cook-off requires Lyman and Gillespie to produce two dishes in one hour for the judges, which tentatively include The News Tribune Executive Editor/Senior Vice President Karen Peterson and actor Matthew Lillard. The third spot will be auctioned off during the cook-off.

While the chefs must create the dishes from scratch, they are allowed to plan ahead and order specific ingredients necessary for their final presentation.

"We have an idea what we're going to do because you don't want to go into it completely loose,” Lyman said. “You want to be flexible, but if you don't at least have an idea, then you don't know where to go.”

The local contender believes the one-hour time limitation will be his biggest challenge, although each chef will have a sous chef, selected by auction before the cook-off begins, to help them meet the deadline.

"From start to finish it's one hour, so your dish needs to be something that you can execute in about half an hour and have a comfortable amount of time with buffer in there in case you have a curveball with a product," Lyman said.

That’s notably different than cooking in a restaurant, where he said he can spend days developing the back flavors of menu items. There are other elements to the competition that could pose challenges as well.

"You're cooking on equipment that you've never cooked with before,” Lyman said. “You're doing it on a stage in front of an audience, which is fun, but it's also distracting."

Nevertheless, Lyman plans on straying from his familiar "New American Northwest" roots to prepare something Southern with a Northwestern flare. 

"Him being from the South, I want to bring some of the techniques that they do in the South to this and show it with some of our indigenous ingredients."

At last year’s inaugural wine and food festival, celebrity chef Fabio Viviani just won bragging rights for prevailing over cook-off contender and local chef Craig Haslebacher. This year the winner will take home an etched wine bottle as a trophy.

Lyman is keeping his eye on the prize and intends on giving Gillespie a run for his money.

"At the end of the day, you get to cook with a really talented chef," he said. "Do I want to lose — absolutely not. We want to win. I want to beat him."

If you would like to attend the event, tickets are available online until noon Friday, August 5 and also at the Harbor History Museum on the day of the event.

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