Attendees at last night's Guest Chef on the Waterfront, FareStart's annual benefit, thronged tasting booths featuring pork-belly banh mis from Skillet and tortelli from Cantinetta. But the event's big winners came from kitchens rarely mentioned in local culinary circles.
Bell Harbor International Convention Center
The best entrée prize was awarded to the Washington State Convention & Trade Center for chef Jose Chavez's halibut ceviche with mango and avocado. Chavez's dish garnered the most points from a panel of 10 judges (including me and fellow Voracious contributors Jay Friedman and Julien Perry), earning it "Best Overall Dish" honors.
Chef Jay Bartleson of the Bell Harbor International Convention Center picked up his second Guest Chef prize in three years, winning the appetizer division with his cold-smoked monkfish served over an arepa made with roasted Yakima corn, flour, roasted garlic, and chives and topped with horseradish cream cheese. A leaf of wild baby arugula, a drizzle of lemon crème fraiche, and a dash of tobiko completed the very pretty presentation.
Bartleson's dish was my favorite bite of the evening. The sweet monkfish had a fresh, outdoorsy smoke, and the roe provided a swingy saltiness.
Last night's event marked the appetizer's debut, but Bartleson anticipates adding it to his regular catering menu. His scallops entry from 2009 and salmon bake from 2011--"We didn't win with it, but we should have," he says--have both become Bell Harbor mainstays.
Experimenting, Bartleson says, "is the great thing about doing the event."
Bartleson concedes he has a home-court advantage, since the event is conducted on his property. But judges base their decisions on a blind tasting, and Bartleson swears his staff wouldn't sabotage their competitors by withholding equipment or hoarding storage space.
"When [other restaurants] come in, we give them a hand," he says.
Major catering facilities tend to do better in tasting competitions because their chefs aren't ruffled by the prospect of feeding thousands of people, Bartleson theorizes. Experienced caterers know eaters floating between tasting tables don't want to mess with sticky, sloppy dishes or anything that requires a knife.
"We prepared 1200 appetizers for Guest Chef," Bartleson says. "That's a standard day for us. We do Microsoft events with 6,000 people. That's just a ridiculous amount of food production."
Bartleson's crew is now readying for a Nordstrom event next week that will require 8,000 appetizers. Events such as Guest Chef represent one of the kitchen's few opportunities to feed Seattleites who aren't corporate employees or wedding guests.
"It's nice for guests to see what we can do," Bartleson says.
Check out a slideshow from last night's Guest Chef on the Waterfront.