Kim Mitschke / Courtesy Potowatomi Bingo Casino
Recipe Box: Adventures in Celebrity Judging
Chef Seth VanderLaan‘s won the 2013 Lake Superior Fish Classic with his seared whitefish with sweet corn chow chow & poached herring butter.
I love hosting a cooking program for our local PBS station WDSE WRPT because it allows me to showcase the authentically talented cooks who appear on the program to share recipes, cooking tips and tricks.
In my mind, they are the show’s celebrities. So being invited to act as a celebrity judge at last year’s Lake Superior Fish Classic in Duluth was a bit of a delightful surprise.
Classically trained chefs are a breed to be respected. They are in turns artistic, creative, laser focused, epically patient, lightning fast, in command and ever so precise. “Chef” is a title to be honored with a skill set that takes a lifetime to develop. Being a celebrity judge offered me a peek behind the curtain, an opportunity to observe how professional chefs judge one another.
The challenge presented to seven professional chef contestants centered around two fish; Lake Superior whitefish and lake herring (also known as cisco.)
The annual Lake Superior Fish Classic was created by Minnesota Sea Grant to promote the delicious fish harvested from our own Great Lake. Last year Lake Superior Magazine and Wisconsin Sea Grant joined on as sponsors. This year the magazine will take the lead at the Fish Classic in September.
Our seven 2013 professional chef contestants hailed from both Minnesota and Wisconsin. Their work was judged by a panel of three professional chef judges. That’s when I learned that celebrity judges don’t vote. But I did get to watch, taste and, most importantly, learn. I was busy taking notes.
Our lead judge, Don Miller, executive chef at the University of Notre Dame, took me under his wing to explain the fine points.
You’d expect judging to begin when the dish is done, but that’s not the case at all. The judging process began as soon as the chefs received their fish.
Safety and clean work spaces count, Don explained to me. “We’re looking at food handling. Are they keeping cold ingredients cold?”
Next is technique, Don says. “What are their knife skills like? Are they scaling the fish? How are they managing those scales so they don’t get into the rest of the dish?”
Working at temporary stations set up around the perimeter of The Depot’s Great Hall, the chefs were not cooking in ideal conditions, but all of them seemed able to adapt.
Judges moved from station to station, asking competitors for their recipes, talking about the dishes that were taking shape.
Soon the hall began to fill with folks attending the public tasting – and people’s choice judging – portion of the evening’s event.
The competitors and their teams balanced preparation with easy banter, all the while keeping one eye on the clock. Some were preparing two different dishes – one for the pro judges and one for the public.
Soon it came time for the tasting, but, once again, flavor was not the only criterion for excellence.
“We’re looking at the presentation on the plate, as well as the balance of flavors, the mouth feel,” says Don. “What stands out in a dish.”
Upstairs in the judging room away from the crowd, the debate began in earnest. Score sheets were tallied, results discussed.
The points given by the celebrity judge, though she did a score sheet, did not count in the final tally, by the by.
When the counting and the discussion was done, Chef Seth VanderLaan and his team from the Potawatomi Bingo Casino in Milwaukee won the $1,500 first-place prize. Seth is the banquet chef.
Seth’s dish was seared whitefish with creamy grits, sweet corn chow chow and poached herring butter.
“The flavors were nicely balanced,” Don said. “The seared whitefish was cooked perfectly. The lightly smoked herring counterbalanced the creaminess of the sauce. The grits were nice, and the chow chow on top added a contrast in flavor profiles.”
Apparently citizen tasters agreed. VanderLaan also took the People’s Choice Award.
The second-place $750 prize went to local chef Scott Gradin of the New Scenic Café and his colorful root vegetable hash with herring.
The judges ranked him highly for technique as well as the dish itself. “He by far did the best job filleting and cleaning the fish,” Don said. “The dish was executed beautifully.”
Chef Seth VanderLaan‘s Seared Whitefish with Sweet Corn Chow Chow & Poached Herring Butter
- 2 whitefish fillets, skin on and cut in half
- 2 Tbsp. canola oil
- 2 oz. poached herring butter sauce (see recipe below)
Heat sauté pan over medium high heat. Add canola oil and sear fish, skin side down. Continue cooking until browning appears up the side of the fish. Turn fish over and continue cooking for 1 minute. Remove from pan. Plate fish with butter sauce under the fish to keep skin crispy.
Serve with 1/4 c. sweet corn chow chow and/or 1/4 c. creamy grits (both recipes below).
Sweet Corn Chow Chow:
- 1 ear fresh sweet corn, cut off the cob
- 1 Tbsp. red pepper, small dice
- 1 Tbsp. roma tomato, small dice
- 1 Tbsp. white onion, small dice
- 1/4 c. champagne vinegar
- 1/3 c. cold water
- 1 tsp. sugar
- 1 pinch fresh ground mustard seed
- 1 pinch fresh ground coriander
- 1 tsp. chopped fresh herbs (basil, thyme and parsley)
- salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients in large bowl and let sit at room temperature for 45 minutes. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Serve at room temperature.
- 1 c. vegetable stock
- 2 Tbsp. sweet white wine
- 1 Tbsp. heavy cream
- 1/4 c. butter, cubed
- 2 lake herring fillets, skins off (or 2 each if fillets are small)
- salt and white pepper to taste
Bring stock and white wine to a light simmer. Turn off heat and let sit for 1 minute.
Add herring to liquid and let sit for 3 minutes or until cooked all the way through.
Remove herring and set aside, Discard half of the liquid in the pan. Add the heavy cream and reduce remaining liquid by half. Remove from heat and slowly add the cubed butter.
Lightly shred the cooked herring and add to butter sauce.
Season to taste with salt and white pepper.
Creamy Grits (not pictured):
- 1/4 c. stone-ground white grits
- 1 c. chicken stock
- 1 Tbsp. Butter
- 2 Tbsp. Heavy cream
- salt and white pepper to taste
Bring stock and cream to a boil. Add grits and continue to simmer over medium low heat for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn off heat and add butter. Season with salt and white pepper to taste.
Juli Kellner hosts “WDSE-Cooks” on WDSE-WRPT PBS 8 in Duluth.