Elevation Eats: Sample the Sierra Chef Challenge raises the culinary bar at Lake Tahoe
September 23, 2017
Sample the Sierra was bigger than ever this year, and that includes the annual Sierra Chef Challenge. This year the competition was expanded to include multiple courses, thereby raising the stakes for the competing chefs. A mystery box provided the ingredients for each course, and the chefs had 30 minutes to prepare their dish.
Four chefs began the challenge, but after each course one was eliminated until there was a winner. We sat down with Patrick Harrity, the executive chef at Cold Water Brewery and this year's winner, to hear about the experience.
"Since Cold Water has opened we have never lost the chef's competition," Harrity said. This is his first win, but his predecessor at Cold Water, Justin Kaplan, won the previous two years, even beating out Jimi Nakamatsu, now with the Lake House, in 2016. "I had some big shoes to fill. [Kaplan is] by far one of the best chefs that I have had the pleasure of working with. … This was the first time I could showcase me and what I could do, and not just be in Justin's shadow."
Despite the fact that the main ingredients for each dish were going to be a mystery, Harrity was able to prepare — somewhat.
"They didn't have an oven, so beforehand I was practicing baking in a pot and turning that into an oven," Harrity said. "I tried to have a little game plan going. I figured they were going to give me a protein, some kind of vegetable, some kind of fruit … and then something weird … and then most of that went out the window when I saw the ingredients. The fact that they threw me Pop Rocks in the first round was just ridiculous."
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The crazy ingredients forced all four chefs to rely purely on their knowledge, creativity and confidence.
"I think that I was putting so much pressure on myself to win. That kind of heightened my nerves the week prior. But I was extremely confident going in, especially when I got up there. The kitchen is my element. It is where I am most comfortable. Food is what I know … the second I got up there and we started the nerves went away," Harrity said. "You've got your salt, your fat, your acid and your heat and that's what you've got to stick to. You can make any dish good as long as you stick with those elements."
Harrity's confidence did not blind him to the steep competition, though. It was chef Kristina Forsberg from the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino that had him worried. The restaurant industry is, unfortunately, even in 2017, a notorious boy's club. Competition is intense, and if you're a female chef, you have twice as much hill to climb. So, when Harrity saw Forsberg on the list, a young, successful, high-ranking female chef, he knew she would be fierce.
"From the get-go … I figured she was going to be my biggest challenge and it turns out she was." Indeed, Forsberg had him on the run until the very end.
Debbie Brown, owner of Cold Water Brewery, was there every second cheering Harrity on, and when he was proclaimed the winner she burst into tears. "Debbie is definitely my biggest cheerleader," Harrity said.
Brown sees this competition as uplifting for the entire community, and she would like to see more restaurants get involved. "Cold Water would love to challenge all of South Shore and all the restauranteurs that are out there to encourage their chefs to participate in this great event," Brown said. The competition was invigorating for both Cold Water's staff and customers. "All week long, all month long, people are encouraging your chef."
During the competition, Brown was constantly sending updates back to the restaurant, and when they won, "The entire restaurant went ballistic … It was like the Super Bowl at Cold Water."
Harrity agrees, "It just showcases the abilities of the chefs that are up here … I think this is going to make, or at least help turn South Lake into a foodie destination. There are such great chefs. You've got Jimi at The Lake House who is awesome. I think places like us, The Lake House, they are actually bringing people up to Tahoe not just for, you know, the lake but for the food … having these events is really pushing it into the forefront."
But just because they want to see more restaurant participation, doesn't mean they're going soft. Harrity plans to return next year to defend his title. "
Cold Water has never lost, and as long as I am here I am going to be competing in it," he said.
Speaking of The Lake House, owner Jeff Sparrow and chef Jimi Nakamatsu participated in the pairing competition this year, while featuring their newly minted food trailer. The prepared pork belly steamed buns with heirloom tomatoes, white corn, jalapenos and cilantro with a char-sui BBQ sauce, and they were paired with BellaGrace Vineyards. They won by a landslide.
We at Elevation Eats agree that events like Sample the Sierra and the Sierra Chef Challenge help to raise the bar for the food industry in Tahoe, and we hope to see you there next year!
Elevation Eats is the brainchild of Rae and Troy Matthews: South Shore locals, internet enthusiasts, and the food-obsessed, Tahoe-loving, annoying-couple down the street. This is their second food-related project. Their first is the blog LustForCooking.com, a celebration of cooking at home. Elevation Eats is dedicated to documenting and promoting the Tahoe food scene with a focus on sustainable living and cultural advancement. Find out more at elevationeats.com.