From the contestants, to the judges to the mystery basket of ingredients, if
you were watching “Chopped” on television that night you could have driven to Jacksonville and experienced it for real.
Competing were Team Stanfill, Eric and Kathleen Stanfill, former owners of Larissa House in Jacksonville; Team Bad Hattitude, Rob Sadler of Sadler’s Kitchen and Jote Brown, former Lon Morris student and current hospitality student at Stephen F. Austin; Team Culinary Skills, Dylan Humphries, Whitehouse High School culinary student and Melodie Nelson, Lon Morris hospitality administration student; and Team Keeping Up With Joneses, Nathan and Lisa Jones of Austin Bank and the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce.
I was honored to be one of the judges, alongside some of the area’s top chefs and culinarians: Chef Jackson York of Edom Bakery; Diedra Stewart, culinary instructor for Whitehouse High School; and Chef Simon Webster from Sabor a Pasion Country House and Bistro in Palestine.
Products included fresh produce from Diamond B Ranch in Neches, fresh cheese, milk and bacon from Poppa Skinny’s Farm in Jacksonville, Atkinson peanut butter candies, Tricky Dix meat seasoning from Sweet Gourmet in Tyler and specialty products from FRESH by Brookshire’s.
In the appetizer round, the mystery basket had fresh goat cheese from Poppa Skinny’s Farm, pickled beets and Atkinson peanut butter candies. Along with these ingredients, teams could use spices, oils, vinegars, breads and produce from a pantry.
Teams had five minutes to plan and 15 minutes to cook a dish that incorporated all of the ingredients and tasted and looked appetizing. The judging was based on creativity, presentation and flavor.
The appetizers included beet and goat cheese quesadillas with a pineapple sauce, beet and goat cheese salad in a lettuce cup, goat cheese spread with zucchini and beets on crackers and a beet and fruit chutney on a crispy pita.
In the entrée round the remaining teams were given 25 minutes to cook and a mystery basket with ahi tuna, wasabi peas, Tricky Dix meat seasoning and cherimoya fruit from FRESH. None of us were sure what cherimoya fruit was and using it in the dish didn’t help solve the mystery.
The focus became how tuna was cooked, or overcooked. Team Bad Hattitude made a tuna ceviche, but it was over-marinated. Team Culinary Skills rubbed the tuna with Tricky Dix seasoning and pan-seared it. The seasoning and sauce were nice but the tuna was overcooked. Team Jones made a seared tuna salad and managed to cook the tuna correctly. Team Bad Hattitude was chopped because of their over-marinated ceviche and appetizer-like portions.
Now we were down to two teams. One would be chopped and one would be the winner. In the dessert round the teams were given ground espresso beans, Red Wattle bacon from Pappa Skinny’s Farm, dark chocolate and Cherith Valley Farms spirited peaches. We were presented with chocolate French toast topped a peach sauce, whipped meringue and bacon garnish and a crepe stuffed with peaches, chocolate, bacon and cinnamon topped with a sour cream sauce.
Judging was difficult but we were honest with the contestants. The final decision came down to a round-by-round evaluation. Team Culinary Skills’ chutney was our favorite appetizer; Team Jones won the entrée round with tuna salad; and for the dessert we decided Team Jones had the most flavor and best use of the mystery basket ingredients.
The Joneses were shocked to win and did not expect to make it through against competitors who have restaurant experience and culinary training.
“I have a very talented wonderful wife and through years of experience, cooking for a family, we were able to create dishes that could compete and win,” Mr. Jones said. “We were thrilled to do this and help out Lon Morris College and Breezy’s students.”
This semester the hospitality students are taking Meetings, Expositions, Events and Conventions (MEEC). The course explores the operation and execution of event planning and the students were responsible for planning and producing a real event that makes a positive community impact. The event raised money for the hospitality administration program and taught the students valuable skills in event planning, marketing and publicity.
Breezy Lake is the director of the hospitality administration department at Lon Morris and instructor for the MEEC course.
“We have been around for over 150 years impacting the East Texas community and we will continue to do so for many more years especially in the hospitality industry,” Ms. Lake said.
The hospitality industry, which includes restaurants, hotels, tourism and resorts, is the largest in the world and Lon Morris is the only two-year college in East Texas offering this type of program.
They are a feeder school that leads many students, especially hospitality students, into four-year programs around the state. Many students have moved on to Texas Tech, Stephen F. Austin and University of Houston to complete their degree.
Despite the financial problems Lon Morris has faced, Ms. Lake is hopeful about the impact the school and events like Chopped: East Texas has on East Texas communities.
Culinary tourism is on the rise and efforts to bring more tourists to East Texas are paying off in communities like Jacksonville, Tyler, Edom, Neches and Palestine.
The efforts of farmers, locally-owned restaurants, shops, festivals and brands bring a character and personality to East Texas that makes it a place people want to visit.
Next week in FOOD I will provide a directory of resources for fresh produce, meat, products, ingredients and local food brands. If you are a farmer, vendor, restaurateur or producer of a fresh product in the East Texas area send an email to email@example.com or call me at 903-596-6247. I would also like to hear from readers if you have a favorite purveyor or product that represents fresh, whole food and local businesses, no matter how small.
Christine Gardner can also be found on Facebook at Christine Gardner Tyler Paper Food.