Creative dishes emerge at King Cole Cannery Celebrity Chef Cook-Off

October 5, 2018

Last week, I was invited to serve as a judge for the King Cole Cannery Celebrity Chef Cook-Off held at the Milton Fire Hall. The event was organized by the Milton Historical Society as a fundraiser to support its community programs and the Lydia B. Cannon Museum.

The historical context for the event is Milton’s (now closed) Draper-King Cole Cannery, one of the town’s largest employers throughout the 20th century. Crops of tomatoes, peas, peaches, lima beans and corn were sourced from local farmers, then processed in the various buildings of the original cannery. Contestants for the event were encouraged to feature one or more of the vegetables that had been canned at Draper-King Cole.

While the chefs were prepping their ingredients, heating their portable cooktops, stacking plates and cutlery, they talked about the dishes they planned to serve. All of them wanted to showcase the signature style of their respective restaurants and were quick to point out the unique aspects of the recipes they had created. 

The room filled with people when the doors opened at 5:30 p.m., and despite plans to begin the tasting at 6 p.m., the enthusiastic chefs started early. Soon the air was thick with aromas of barbecue, ginger, scallops and short ribs. The contestants were offered ingredients from Hickman’s Butcher Block (short ribs) and Allen Harim (chicken), rounding out their recipes from their own supplies.

Before I describe the winners, I’ll take you through the other inventive dishes. The team from Hickman’s led by Vinnie Modesto offered 72-hour short ribs, richly sauced and plated with creamy mashed potatoes. Mary Gaffney from A Different Kitchen served cups of Thai coconut-corn chowder with sautéed shrimp, subtly seasoned with Asian flavors and adorned with threads of cilantro.

Both Chris Parks of Lupo Italian Kitchen and Kevin Reading of Abbott’s Grill opted for short ribs, but with entirely different presentations. The dish from Lupo featured pappardelle pasta and shredded short rib meat in a tasty cream sauce garnished with bright circles of green pepper. The glistening ribs from Abbott’s Grill were highly seasoned with fresh ginger and hoisin sauce, an ideal balance of heat and sweet flavors for the impossibly tender beef.

Every attendee received a program and a ticket when they checked in at the door. Tickets were ballots to vote for a winner of the People’s Choice Best Chef. This year, Mike Clampitt of Po’ Boys Creole Restaurant was celebrated by his many friends and neighbors who cast their votes for him. He served the perfectly seared scallops and spicy maque choux in the photo.

In a result that surprised everyone (including the judges who used a numerical scoring system), there was a tie for the Critic’s Choice Best Chef. Drew Boyle of Bethany Blues created a decorative stuffed pumpkin with smoked chicken leg. Colorful, miniature gourds were steamed and filled with pumpkin risotto, then topped with a meaty smoked chicken leg, as seen in the photo.

Sharing the prize for Critic’s Choice Best Chef was Nathan Griffith of Gilligan’s, soon moving to the new Gilligan’s location opening in Milton. His combination of ingredients were an homage to Sussex County: local bluefish, Lewes Dairy cream, fresh-picked collard greens. He offered tastings of a smoked bluefish dip with homemade cream cheese garnished with crisped collard greens, a splash of collard-infused olive oil and a crunchy slice of bruschetta.

Whenever I attend an event like this, or enjoy an exceptionally well-prepared meal at a restaurant, I’ll try to figure out how re-create the dishes at home. My first step is to look at published recipes, followed by some experimentation. Or, if I’m lucky, I can find the original recipe, as I have with Mary Gaffney’s Thai Coconut Corn Chowder. Thanks to all the chefs for sharing their culinary skills, and congratulations to the winners.

Thai Coconut Corn Chowder* 

3 T vegetable oil 
1 T chopped ginger 
1 T red curry paste 
1 C diced potatoes 
3 C corn 
1 t salt 
1/2 C diced tomato 
2 C vegetable stock 
13.5 oz can coconut milk 
8 basil leaves 
8 mint leaves 
juice of 1/2 lime 
chopped scallion for garnish 
chopped cilantro for garnish 
3/4 lb peeled raw shrimp 
1/2 t salt 
pinch black pepper 
1 minced garlic clove 
2 T vegetable oil 

Heat the vegetable oil in a saucepan over medium. Stir in ginger and curry paste; cook for a minute, stirring constantly. Add potatoes, corn and salt. Stir to coat vegetables with paste and cook for 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, stock and coconut milk.

Raise heat to medium-high and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 12 minutes. While chowder cooks, rinse shrimp and spread them on a piece of paper towel. Season with salt and pepper. Heat 2 T vegetable oil in a deep skillet over medium-high.

Add the shrimp in a single layer and scatter garlic over shrimp. Cook for 2 minutes, then turn and cook another 2 minutes; remove pan from heat. To serve, add mint, basil, lime juice and shrimp to chowder, stirring to combine. Adjust seasonings and ladle into bowls; garnish with scallions and cilantro.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings. *Adapted from Mary Gaffney, A Different Kitchen, courtesy of WBOC’s “Delmarva Life.”