Chefs battle it out to help St. Paul School
by Jessica Langdon
LENEXA — Eight of Kansas City’s renowned chefs vied for the chance to battle it out onstage — “Iron-Chef”-style — for the championship here at St. James Academy March 24.
And the winner was: St. Paul School in Olathe.
That’s because the food and festivities were part of a first-of-its-kind fundraiser — the Chef’s Classic Knock Out ‘Bout to benefit the elementary school.
But the competing chefs weren’t complaining.
“I’ve been having a lot of fun so far,” said Paulo & Bill chef Mark Maybon, as he dished up pork dumplings and miso broth for the second round of the competition.
“It’s for charity!”
Competition for a good cause
All eight of the featured chefs competed in the first two rounds, which consisted of cold, then hot, hors d’oeuvres.
Although some of the 200 in attendance were there for just the fun and the food furnished by various vendors, VIP-ticketholders actually judged the first two rounds with their votes, after sampling the gourmet goods of chefs like Brandon Winn.
“It just seemed like a good charitable donation of my time,” said Winn, of Room 39.
His table was filled with plates of miso-braised beef cheek with sushi rice, ginger and lemongrass.
“It’s always fun to compete whenever you can,” he added.
At a nearby table, chef Amber DiGiovanni, author of several cookbooks and host of the “What’s Cooking!” talk show, served a savory Cajun cheesecake on an almond crust with a mushroom and lump crab cake ragout.
“I want to beat the boys,” said DiGiovanni, the lone female chef in the competition, with a smile.
But her first and foremost reason for being there stood right beside her. DiGiovanni’s nine-year-old niece Clare Kaffenberger is a fourth-grader at St. Paul.
“It’s really special,” Clare said, “that my aunt is able to compete in this.”
A delicious idea
Plans for the competition started cooking a few months ago, when St. Paul pastor Father John Torrez asked school principal Tonia Helm about putting together a fundraising event.
When Helm called archdiocesan superintendent Dr. Kathy O’Hara to get some direction, she learned the idea for a food-related fundraiser had been simmering in O’Hara’s imagination for some time.
“There are so many auctions, so many golf tournaments,” said O’Hara, “and I’ve been trying to move our elementary schools away from the classic fundraisers — selling candy bars, wrapping paper and all of that — because we can’t sustain our schools on wrapping paper and candy bars.”
Capitalizing on the popularity of the Food Network and local restaurants was a perfect way, thought O’Hara, to stir things up.
“Tonia took [the idea] and just ran with it,” she said.
Helm then recruited longtime friend Brian Wilson to help, and event chair Karen Crnkovich asked her brother, who studied at the Culinary Institute in New York, to figure out the framework.
Many times, traditional fundraisers put the burden right back on the families who are already supporting the parish and paying tuition, Helm said. This had the potential to bring together quite a different population — anyone who is interested in food.
“We wanted something classy. We wanted something that our entire Kansas City community could come together and be a part of,” said Helm.
After months of hard work and prayer, the big day didn’t disappoint.
“You know what?” asked Helm. “I walked in and I cried. It was just beautiful.”
And for a lot of the attendees, it was love at first bite.
Not your typical fundraiser
Jim Merwald, a parishioner of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, attended with family and thought the Chef’s Classic Knock Out ‘Bout was a great improvement on the typical fundraiser.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Merwald.
“You get a chance to try a lot of things you might not otherwise try from a lot of different chefs,” he said.
Not only would he attend this sort of thing again, he noted, but “I’d probably tell other people to come, too.”
Vendors’ booths, offering everything from cake pops to Mexican food to a look at fun products, were set up close to the competitors’ tables, so the whole event was filled with delicious sights and smells. Guests also bid on silent auction items.
“Oh, my gosh, it’s like a party in your mouth at every stop,” said Crnkovich. “It was a very hard decision [to decide who to vote for].”
And the winner is . . .
Finally, it was time for the two chefs with the highest scores — Winn of Room 39 and Charles d’Ablaing of Chaz on the Plaza — to compete for the championship.
And, of course, the twist everyone had been waiting for: the unveiling of the three mystery ingredients the two chefs had to include.
As emcee Mark Mollentine — a St. Paul alumnus and founder and president of KC Food Artisans — updated the crowd on the dueling chefs’ progress, chefs and sous-chefs scurried between the fully stocked pantry and their cooking stations.
When the final bell rang, the plates featuring the three required ingredients — pork tenderloin, quinoa and whiskey — were presented to the panel of celebrity judges. Celina Tio of Julian, Colby Garrelts of Bluestem and Robert Bishop and Matt Shaw of Lunch Blog KC dug in.
In the end, d’Ablaing was awarded the grand prize, a tall trophy, for his roast apple quinoa with orange and bourbon, and his pan-roasted pork stuffed with Gorgonzola and scallions, complete with a beurre rouge (red-wine butter) sauce.
The benefit raised more than $13,000 for the Olathe school, said Helm.
With their appetites whetted by the fun of the first Chef’s Classic Knock Out ‘Bout, organizers are already looking ahead and starting to put together their recipe for next year’s event.