Iron cuisine! Okanagan Iron Chef

The Okanagan Valley is a chef’s ultimate playground.

Rod Butters

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Iron Cuisine!

First, there was the Penticton Iron Man…Now there’s the Okanagan Iron Chef.

Story by Michael Botner  Photo by Stephanie Gunderson

The Okanagan’s first big battle of chefs took centre stage for an evening of furious slicing and dicing at the Kelowna Community Theatre. A sort of local version of the Stanley Cup of Chefdom, four of Kelowna’s top chefs, in pairs plus assistants, faced off with tools of the trade – white uniforms and sharp-edged instruments. Held in late March before a large, boisterous crowd, Kelowna’s first Iron Chef battle was a hands-down hit and the flagship event of the first Okanagan Culinary Festival.

The competition followed quite closely the Iron Chef format on Food TV. There were two cooking stations on either side of the stage, or stadium, for the battling chefs and their two-person teams. The chefs had one hour to create a three-course meal around a secret theme ingredient, only announced just before the event, and that must be present in each dish. In fact, the chefs’ goal was to “best express the unique qualities of the theme ingredient” – in this case, two kinds of fresh scallops. 

Throughout both cook-offs, Edan Fay of Mongol’s Grill did an incredible job of giving a play-by-play commentary as well as explaining unusual ingredients and cooking methods. He was assisted by one of the judges, Michael Noble, the first North American chef to compete as an “iron man of cooking” in Japan, and Martin Burden, president of the Okanagan Chef’s Association, a sponsor of the event.

The first heat pitted Travis Hackl of Okanagan’s Finest Foods and The Ridge Restaurant against Paul Cecconi, executive chef of the Harvest Dining Room. Cecconi was named winner. In the second heat, Lee Cooper, 23-year-old sous chef at Mission Hill and candidate for the 2006 Canadian Bocuse d’Or culinary competition, was pitted against Rod Butters, executive chef and co-proprietor of Fresco Restaurant. The victorious Butters’ team included his apprentice, Sean Peltier, winner of the Egon Braam Okanagan Apprentice of the Year Competition. 

Butters’ menu featured a starter of blood orange-cured scallops, micro-greens and avocado spoom (a type of frothy sherbet) with 24-karat gold leaf, finished with a Limoncello ginger martini. For that little extra touch, Butters added live goldfish, not to eat, but as a show-stopping decoration in the base of the serving dish. For his second dish, he featured smoked pork belly rounds stuffed with scallop, a potato torte with truffles, and a fried quail egg. He finished with lobster and scallop corn dogs with lobster mayonnaise, grainy mustard and a plum ketchup.

“The clash of iron chefs is both fun and entertaining,” said Perry Bentley, culinary arts chairperson at Okanagan College, one of the key event sponsors. “But behind the scenes there is a serious side to all of this. The Okanagan is on the cusp of becoming a culinary hub of Canada and Iron Chef raises the profile of what we do.”

The culinary scene in the Okanagan has changed dramatically, according to Bentley. “Wine drives much of the change because it helps put us on the world stage,” he said. “But once here, people are discovering more than wine. The Okanagan offers a bounty fresh, organically grown products and ingredients, many unique and unusual, from small, exclusive, artisanal producers. Now for the first time, we are developing our own homegrown talent right here in the Valley. Promising young chefs like Sean Peltier, a graduate of the Culinary Arts Program at Okanagan College, stay here and train as apprentices and can look forward to a bright future.” 

As Rod Butters put it, “the Okanagan Valley is a chef’s ultimate playground.”

Featured also at this year’s Okanagan Culinary Festival were the Provincial Cold Salon Culinary Display and a Best Wine Taster Contest that tested the judging and tasting palates of lay people. 

Read more of the original stories celebrated in our 30th-anniversary issue.