It was close. But once again the visiting celebrity chef prevailed over the hometown talent in the featured cook-off event of this past Saturday, Aug. 6.
and a former finalist of the hit reality TV series “Top Chef,” edged out , with a Vietnamese-inspired char-grilled pork dish and bacon-infused farro risotto.
But there weren’t any moans from the audience when the result was announced. Between the sunshine, community camaraderie and wining and dining on samples from nearly 55 regional wine, beer and food exhibitors, festival attendees were in a celebratory mood.
“This is a wonderful thing they have going here,” said Gillespie. “The museum is amazing, the entire town is awesome. It’s just really great to be here.”
An estimated 675 people converged on the grounds of the to attend the festival, already up 35 percent from last year’s inaugural event, which attracted a sellout crowd of 500.
Put on jointly by the museum and the Gig Harbor Historic Waterfront Association, the one-day community gathering is a mixture of exhibitor tastings, wine classes and cooking demonstrations.
“This is really great,” one first-time festivalgoer was overheard to say late in the day. “What a great crowd. Everybody is sticking around.”
The reviews from exhibitors were good as well, said GHHWA Executive Director Mary DesMarais. In addition to getting their products before a receptive crowd, some even conducted a little business.
“Albertson’s just decided they wanted to take on our cheese,” said Mark Kauzlarich, owner of M&T Smoked Products, a South Prairie-based maker of hot smoked cheddar and salmon. “It’s our first time here and we’ll definitely be coming back next year.”
That bodes well for one of the underlying goals of the wine and food festival — community economic development. The event is also a fundraiser meant to help support both the museum and the GHHWA.
In addition to paying the $75 entry fee, attendees opened their wallets to buy raffle tickets, engage in an afternoon round of Wine Jeopardy and bid on epicurean auction items during the late afternoon celebrity cook-off.
“I’m so excited. I am going to Atlanta. I’ve never been to Georgia,” said Gig Harbor resident Beverly Hopper, who jumped to her feet when her $1,400 bid won the highest ticket item of the cook-off event, a private five-course dinner for two at Gillespie’s Woodfire Grill.
Also auctioned off were a seat at the three-person judge’s table and assisting sous chef roles in the kitchen. The judging position went to Shawn Shaffer. Jeremy Barber, the chef at Horseshoe Lake Golf Course, took the assistant’s position for Gillespie. George Bonni won the role with Lyman.
There were a few hiccups once the cook-off got underway. Festival coordinators turned up the pressure at the outset by announcing they were shaving 10 minutes off the cook time, giving Gillespie and Lyman just 50 minutes to prepare two pork-based dishes each. Bonni sliced the tip of his finger, leaving him to assist Lyman with one bandaged hand. A seeming shortage of pans had Gillespie ready to improvise until a spare pot was found.
Still, both competitors finished on time, with Gillespie serving up char-grilled pork accompanied by a rice noodle salad with Vietnamese herbs, vegetables and Thai basil sauce. His second entrée was a Southern-styled farro risotto, cooked in a pork-based stock and paired with root vegetables and fried pig skin.
Lyman countered with his own Southern-inspired creation — spicy cinnamon rubbed racked ribs served with a salad of pickled Rainier cherries, vegetables and watermelon. Then there was his dessert, a banana fritter, deep-fried in Amber tempura batter and sandwiched between a rice crispy base and bacon gelato topping.
The judges — Shaffer, Tacoma News Tribune Executive Editor Karen Peterson, and Ryan Fournier of Fournier Insurance Solutions — rated the two chefs not only on food quality and taste, but also on presentation and audience interaction. When totaled, their scores put Gillespie in the winner’s seat, but only by a small margin, said Jennifer Kilmer, the museum’s executive director.
“I tasted a lot of Thad’s food and it was awesome too, so it must have been neck and neck,” said Gillespie. Ultimately, he added that he was most happy to have made some delicious straightforward food. “That’s what I’m all about.”
For his part, Lyman was satisfied that he gave Gillespie a run for his money and showed that Gig Harbor can compete with the culinary world’s best chefs.
“Right now, we’re (zero) for two,” he said, referring to celebrity chef Fabio Viviani’s victory over local chef Craig Haslebacher at last year’s wine and food festival. “Maybe next year, we’ll take it way.”