September 28, 2023

Present and future chefs collaborated at Waterloo Region’s fourth annual Iron Chef competition on Feb. 5.

The focal point of the contest was a cook-off between chefs from eight of the region’s most successful restaurants, with students of Conestoga’s culinary management program acting as sous chefs. According to the event’s organizer Gary Hallam, it gave the students a unique opportunity to grow.

“There are so many ways to learn, not just in a classroom,” he said. “This environment teaches them life skills of being out here serving real customers and working with chefs. And a bit of pressure is good for students, so I think they did great.”

The competition features a different primary ingredient each year. This year, Kevin Stemmler from Stemmler Meats supplied beef chuck for the ingredient of choice. The winning dish was produced by the team of Bauer Kitchen and Beertown, who braised the beef and paired it with a blood orange marinade.

All proceeds from the event were donated to scholarships for Conestoga’s culinary programs. By the end of the event, $15,000 had been raised to foster future greatness in the culinary arts.
The contest was judged by Conestoga’s culinary program co-ordinator Chef Philippe Saraiva, Stemmler and celebrity guest judge Susur Lee. Lee, one of the leaders in Asian fusion cooking, has had a partnership with Conestoga’s culinary program for several years; a partnership he deems to be incredibly rewarding.

“Chef Matthew Warden invited me,” he said. “I love the school. I have some students in my restaurant, so we have a little friendship connection. He asked me to judge here, and of course I said yes because it’s important to see the next generation of chefs and to see the upcoming of the same passion. I think it’s very important to preserve the next generation of chefs.”
Many students left a positive impression on the chefs that partnered with them. Lori Maidlow, executive chef at the Waterloo Inn, whose restaurant has competed in all four previous Iron Chef competitions, said the students this year were the best she’s ever worked with.

“They were very professional, very courteous and, considering they’d only been in school for one month, I thought their knife skills were pretty amazing,” she said.

Some students are already starting to profit off of the exposure that competing in this event has given them. Casey Brownrigg, a first-year culinary management student and sous chef for Gusto Catering Company at the competition, said, “I just applied to Beertown and I told them I was competing in this competition. They actually asked me to come back and show them what I have, and they liked what they saw. So I’ve already gotten a job out of it.”

Now that the competition is over, all parties involved are looking ahead to next year. Hallam said this year was the most successful year for the competition, and he hopes to build on the success. According to Saraiva, the increased success of the event may have been due to a reduction in competitors.

“We found that with a couple more restaurants, it becomes more crowded for the guests, so I think this year the number of guests to restaurants was well balanced,” he said.
As for next year, Saraiva hopes to challenge chefs even more to keep them on their toes.

“I’d like to take it to the next challenge next year, maybe give them a little more to worry about,” he said. “Beef chuck was challenging, but wait until next year.”

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