Land of Plenty
Written onSeptember 01 , 2007
Rutland is important to me. After leaving Vermont for several years, trying out such places as North Carolina, southern California, and South Dakota, I chose to return here in 2000 with my own children to live where my grandparents, my parents, and my husband and I all grew up. Although many of my childhood peers had settled elsewhere, I was determined to use my education to help make Rutland a better place. I now do this in part through my work at the Community College of Vermont, where I advise students, hire instructors, and teach in various disciplines. And when a local cooking contest was proposed recently, I decided to make it an event that would serve a dual purpose: educate the public about local food and build community in the city I love.
Rutland’s history-laden Center Street was the stage for the contest, held on July 20th of this year. Part of the “Friday Night Live” series of Downtown events, it was called “Iron Chef Rutland,” giving a local twist to the well-loved television series in which chefs are pitted against one another to cook the best dish in a limited amount of time. The premise of the contest was simple: three Rutland chefs had to cook a dish over the course of an hour right on the street. Their creations would then be judged on timeliness, taste, presentation, and one seemingly difficult rule: all the ingredients in their self-designed dishes had to come from within 100 miles of Rutland.
Under the threat of storm clouds, each chef carefully designed a work station unique to their own personal style. Although some preparation was allowed prior to the event, all of the cooking had to be done on-site. Kathleen Smith, owner and chef of the Cajun seafood restaurant Pasche’s, mixed ingredients from her own home garden with vegetables and meats from local growers. Using some familiar Vermont products such as tomatoes, corn, green onions, and jalapenos, Kathleen produced a colorful and tasty corn and tomato salsa. And as the skies opened up, Kathleen carefully wrapped fragrant apple bacon around pork tenderloin. With the perfect accompaniment of grilled garlic potatoes and apple slaw, her final entrée was a dish that any home cook could feel comfortable putting together.
Vermont’s summer rainstorms are notorious. They can last for hours in a soft drizzle or can pound the pavement in short bursts. This particular storm seemed to be a mix of the two. The sizzle of rain on hot pans resonated from the second competitor’s station, as Nicholas Ronfeld dazzled the crowd by using some of Vermont’s more colorful ingredients. With red and golden beets, lavender, thyme, rosemary, and red chard all taking starring roles, his dish was like a painter’s palette of colors and textures. Nicholas really took advantage of one of the contest’s loopholes or “gimmies”: each chef was allowed to use two items that came from outside the 100-mile limit. Chef Ronfeld chose olive oil, common to many kitchens, and the much more obscure truffle oil. He represented Sal’s restaurant by marrying his herbs and vegetables with lamb chops raised locally in Randolph.
Just when it seemed the rain would put a stop to the event, staff at the non-competing Back Home Again Café saved the day by quickly covering the chefs and their creations with a large tent. But chef Clarke Congdon, representing the local Italian eatery Sabby’s, didn’t seem swayed by the downpour. Like the other chefs, Clarke used some of Vermont’s most recognizable ingredients, including beets, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, and spinach. But he also used some items that the home cook may not be familiar with, such as garlic scapes. Finally he presented his Boardman Hill Farm pork chops on miniature wooden cutting boards, complemented by a dish of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and a glass of cold Mendon Mountain Orchard’s apple cider.
As the competition drew to a close, staff at Back Home Again Café opened up their restaurant to the drenched judges and spectators. Their hospitality went far beyond providing a tent. With a crackling fire, homey atmosphere, and natural décor, the restaurant was the perfect place to end the contest. Community members sat, kneeled, and stood shoulder-to-shoulder as each chef presented their dish to four judges. After some very tough deliberations, Clarke Congdon was announced the winner. But he wasn’t the only one. The organizers, participants, and community members who stuck with the competition in spite of the rain were able to witness a community at its best. In this, all of us were winners.
Iron Chef Rutland was truly an inspiration—both for the home cook and for a hometown girl wanting to build community. Years ago, when I returned to Rutland, my grandmother said to me “Tiffany, do you realize that Rutland is dead? I was at the post office and that’s what people were saying—Rutland is dead.” I had pondered that statement for years, and at times I thought it was close to accurate. But my heart has lifted in Rutland recently. With ongoing events in the summer, a thriving farmers’ market, and a community that gives when giving is needed, I know Rutland is on the right track.
Local vegetables, fruit, meat, and dairy products aren’t the only commodities Vermont has to offer. Just as our soils are rich in nutrients, our people are filled with a giving spirit. As time goes on, I hope that Vermont is viewed as a land of plenty—in more ways than one.