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Chefs compete in Iron Chef-style contest

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Six chefs. Five secret ingredients. Three dishes. Forty-five minutes. While hundreds watch.

That’s what’s happening Friday when the Celebrity Chef Challenge by InAlliance takes place in Sacramento. Half a dozen local chefs will compete in this Iron Chef-style cook-off that raises money to help people with developmental disabilities.

The nonprofit’s ninth annual chef challenge will be much more spontaneous than other types of cooking contests because no one will know what the secret ingredients are until minutes before the event begins. The chefs are planning to have a good time in this friendly competition.

"It’s going to be fun," said Evan’s Kitchen owner Evan Elsberry. "We’re going to put on a good show."

Elsberry will take the stage in a lion costume – joining his sous chef, Michael Steele, who will be dressed as a lamb. While the theme song "Born To Be Wild" plays, Steele will prance around until Elsberry the lion takes out a fake pistol and pretends to shoot. Lamb chops will be served at the East Sacramento restaurant’s booth at the event.

He will be going up against Richard Pannell of Cuisine Noir magazine, Mark Liberman of Black Sheep Butchery, Ramiro Alarcón of Tequila Museo Mayahuel, Jim Turknett of the Vizcaya and Keith Richardson of Colusa Casino.

About 600 people are expected to watch as the chefs use five mystery ingredients in three dishes they create on stage. Starting at 6:30 p.m. and spaced 15 minutes apart, the chefs have 45 minutes to prepare and plate their dishes. They’ll then have 10 minutes to present and explain the dishes to six judges also on stage, said event organizer Jessica Bean, public relations coordinator for InAlliance.

The chefs will also have booths in the event’s food, wine and beer show from 5:30 – 9:30 p.m. at the California Auto Museum, 2200 Front St.

More than 100 restaurants, wineries and breweries will provide samples of their wares. Three pastry chefs will be set up in three different locations in a separate pastry competition.

The chefs will all have access to a pantry with basic ingredients such as flour, eggs, spices and fresh produce. They can bring sauces, oils and rubs they’ve made. But if they bring any other ingredients not in the pantry, they’ll have to share with the other chefs, Bean said.

Minutes before the cooking begins, the competitors will be told what secret ingredients must be included in the dishes. The ingredients include a meat, seafood, fruit, vegetable and a "wild card.” They’re encouraged to use as many secret ingredients as they can, she said.

The chefs are given a four-burner stove top, convection oven and assistance from one sous chef.

Russell Michel, the winner in 2010, found he had to slightly alter his game plan in last year’s competition after one of the secret ingredients turned out to be goat leg meat. He used another secret ingredient – papaya – to braise and quickly tenderize the meat, then served that on crostini with black truffle goat cheese, white truffle oil and red Alaea Hawaiian sea salt.

"What fun that was!" said Michel, executive chef at the Sheraton Grand Sacramento and its Morgan’s Central Valley Bistro.

The competitors didn’t want to give all their secrets away before Friday. A few were willing to share some of their plans.

Pannell has been cramming for the challenge by watching competitions on the Food Network and practicing presentations in the kitchen. He’s watching to see what’s thrown at chefs and how they present.

"I’m in training," said Pannell, who was the chef at Table 260 until the downtown Sacramento restaurant closed a month ago. He operates Pannell Quizine Catering. His cousin, Sam Pannell, was married to City Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell.

He said he may have an advantage over the other chefs because his cooking doesn’t have to represent a restaurant’s menu or personality. Pannell said he hopes to get an edge with an array of international cuisine or fusion cooking that might mix southern-based food with another culture.

"My strategy is basically to go around the world (with the dishes). I figure I can go anywhere – from the Caribbean to Italy, Mexico, Africa or Asia," he said. "I have the freedom to be very eclectic and very open."

Liberman will use experience picked up at competitions like the Bocuse d’Or USA in New York or at restaurants such as San Francisco’s La Folie and the Joël Robuchon Restaurant in Las Vegas.

He’ll bring ingredients and equipment such as knives, a handheld blender and a thermal immersion circulator used to make waterbaths. He’ll also bring half a dozen spoons of different shapes and sizes stolen from restaurants where he’s worked to commemorate his time there.

"I’m kind of a klepto with the spoons," he said. "I love my spoons. It’s pretty much an extension of my hand at this point."

The judges are Russell Michel, Guy Farris of Sacramento & Co., Michael Anthony of SacDine.com, Alex Lane of Yelp, state Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, Bryan May of News10 and Melissa Crowley of News10 Good Morning.

The chefs are encouraged to make an appetizer, entrée and desert because they’re judged on the three dishes as a whole. They’re also judged on taste, quality, originality, creativity, overall presentation, personality and theatrics.

The winner takes home a medal and bragging rights. Organizers hope to raise $40,000 to $60,000, Bean said.

The chefs are trying to decipher two clues sent out this week about the secret ingredients. The first clue was that Colombian pastry chef Carlos Sanchez was responsible for the success of a certain ingredient for nearly four decades.

Elsberry will bring staples from his kitchen, such as favorite herbs, stocks and marinades. Thursday night, he’ll start reducing what he described as a "killer super stock" that will go with chicken, beef or pork.

"There’s really not too much you can do until you know the ingredients," he said. "I’m pretty crazy. I should be able to figure something out." 

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