There’s nothing better than a searing-hot cast-iron skillet sizzling with hot oil and fresh vegetables to send a crowd into a culinary frenzy. And that’s what will happen on Sunday, August 26th as a team of well-seasoned chefs compete in Chattanooga Market‘s annual Lodge Cast Iron Cook-Off.
“It’s August, and local farm products are at the height of the season, so there’s a special energy throughout the market,” says Mark Kelly, spokesman for cook-off sponsor Lodge Manufacturing. “It’s a chance for everyone to see leading chefs use our products for a variety of recipes.” And, he adds, for some people, it’s their first experience with Lodge products, a 122-year-old company located just outside Chattanooga in South Pittsburg, Tennessee.
“People can see all the different cooking techniques and, in many instance, truly out-of-the-box concepts,” Kelly says. “The audience can gain an appreciation for our classic cookware items with endless recipes.”
Melissa Lail, Assistant Executive Director of Public Markets—which includes Chattanooga Market—says, “the main goal of the competition is to inspire market patrons, while providing a platform to showcase those chefs and restaurants who actively support local growers.”
The winning chef receives Lodge cookware plus a Golden Ticket to the World Food Championships, an affiliation with which, Lail adds, “provides an advancement in the food-sport world for our winning chef.”
Over the course of this week, meet the five chefs who will compete on Sunday:
Surrounded by co-workers waiting for the judges’ decision, Rebecca Barron, executive chef at St. John’s Restaurant and it’s companion restaurant, The Meeting Place, was thrilled when her name was announced as the winner of last year’s Cast-Iron Cook-Off.
“It was so much fun, and I always have a great time because I like being forced to come up with something quickly,” she says. “You have to get really creative.”
Barron, a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was home-schooled. She didn’t graduate from college; nor did she attend culinary school. Some chefs are born with a culinary gene. Barron is one such chef —a woman whose restaurant career began making pizza at Domino’s Pizza in Collegedale and ended up in one of Chattanooga’s top award-winning restaurants. In the kitchen at St. John’s, she’s always under pressure to produce the level of cuisine diners have come to expect and appreciate. Cooking at events such as the Cast-Iron Cook-Off presents another kind of pressure—coming up with something quickly, since she won’t know what protein she’ll be working with until minutes before she is sent out shopping in Chattanooga Market for ingredients with which to pair the meat or seafood that’s chosen.
This year, faced with competing against a round of different chefs, she says competition will be stiff. “That makes it anyone’s game,” she says. “Anytime I compete, I just try to do the best job that I can.”
Last year’s win bought her a ticket to Orange Beach, Ala., to participate in the World Food Championships. “It was a lot of fun hanging out with other chefs and enjoying the beach,” she says. But it was a tough competition, too. “Any time you’re in a new environment with new challenges it can be difficult. But it was definitely exciting. One of my favorite things was seeing how my buddy Charlie Loomis (Feed Table & Tavern) plated his chicken wings. He carved up a Pabst Blue Ribbon box for part of the presentation and plated the wings in the cans. It was a reminder that there are no rules to being creative. Just get out there and have fun.”