In the interest of full disclosure - I am a judge for upcoming Cast Iron Chef competition, which takes place at Schneider Haus National Historic Site on Saturday, October 5th. It's a throw-back version of the popular TV cooking competition, and is the brainchild of the staff at the Kitchener museum.
"Food is an important part of what we do here," says Antoinette Duplessis, Historic Sites Supervisor at Schneider Haus. "A couple of months ago, one of our staff suggested we should have everyone try to cook the same recipe on all of our different cooking implements. I decided to take that idea a step further, and turn this into a competition where an actual chef would compete against our staff."
With the idea in place, Duplessis contacted Nick Benninger, local chef and owner of the Fat Sparrow group of restaurants, to see if he would take part. "I believe Nick's exact words were 'This sounds amazing - count me in!'" says Duplessis. And the Cast Iron Chef Competition was born.
Benninger is looking forward to the challenge of creating dishes outside of his traditional kitchen. "I love cooking old school and this is taking it to a whole new level!" he says. "The competition side makes it all the more fun. I actually think my professional cooking experience will be less useful for this, as I'm going to lean pretty heavy on my camping cooking skills!" The competition will consist of 3 teams, each cooking in a different area of the historic Schneider home, and each using a traditional 1856 cooking technique to create a main course dish as well as a dessert.
"In the kitchen there's a cook stove with an oven; in the wash house (where cooking happens in the summer) there's an open hearth; and outside there's the bake oven, which could provide the biggest challenge," says Duplessis. "The one thing all three of these methods have in common is that they all use wood fired heat."
Along with Nick Benninger the event will feature two other competitors. "We have Carolyn Blackstock (a local culinary historian and interpreter at the Ken Seiling Waterloo Region Museum), as well as a team from Schneider Haus," Duplessis explains. "We thought it was only fair to have 2 staff compete as a team in Cast Iron Chef, as they're going up against an actual chef, and someone with a lot of culinary experience!"
The event will play out similar to the television version of the competition. Each team will receive a Mystery Box containing 4 different ingredients that must be used in their dishes. They will also have access to a stocked pantry, containing traditional ingredients including fresh herbs and produce from the gardens at Schneider Haus. "It may surprise people to know that many 19th century ingredients are also found in many of today's kitchens," says Duplessis. "So when you look at cookbooks, such as the 1877 Home Cook Book from Toronto or the 1898 Galt Cook Book, most of the ingredients in the recipes are still used today. It's the cooking times and methods that have changed."
And because the cooking methods are different, teams will have more time to complete their dishes. "We'll be giving them about 2 hours to complete everything," Duplessis says, "since wood-fired cooking takes longer." The winner will be decided by a panel of judges including cookbook author Rose Murray, and local food blogger/ writer Jasmine Mangalaseril. Judges will choose the winner based on criteria that includes taste, presentation, originality, as well as their use of what's being called a 'culinary curveball' from the Mystery Box.
The Cast Iron Chef competition is just one of many events at Schneider Haus designed to engage the community. "We work very diligently to be part of Kitchener's downtown," explains Duplessis. "In this digital age we're trying to figure out how we become more relevant. I know there are people out there who love food, and who love this kind of competition. We see a real move back to 'slow cooking' using real ingredients. That's also important to us here at Schneider Haus."
Schneider Haus Cast Iron Chef Competition
Saturday, October 5th, 2019
12pm -3pm Rain or Shine
Regular admission rates apply