By Donna Cornelius
The Iron City Chef competition is always one of Birmingham’s most popular food events – so much so that admission is a really hot ticket.
“It’s always a sell-out,” said Kent Howard, chairman of the Vestavia Hills Rotary Club’s annual fundraiser.
This year, the 11th edition of the competition has a new venue at the Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Howard said that because the church’s banquet hall is large, the Rotary Club will sell 360 tickets rather than capping sales at the usual number of 300.
But don’t wait too long to secure your spot at the July 27 event, or you’ll miss seeing four talented chefs in action. Defending champ Patrick McCown of Snapper Grabber’s Land and Sea will return to take on Made Subrata of Shiki Asian Cuisine, Andrea Griffith of Pursell Farms, and Benard Tamburello of Vecchia Pizzeria & Mercato and Moss Rock Tacos & Tequila.
Howard said the event will follow its usual format. Each chef will prepare one of his or her favorite menus with a protein and accompaniments plus a dessert. Guests will visit each chef’s station to taste the food and then vote for their favorite.
McCown, who’s the chef for the “land” side of Snapper Grabber’s in Vestavia, plans to prepare Bayou La Batre Blue Crab Salad with Gulf Coast blue crab, Alabama field peas, Southern Organics microgreens and herbs, McEwen & Sons grit cakes, Duroc pork belly crisps, fig honey, farmer’s cheese, and lemon vinaigrette. His dessert will be a chocolate biscuit: a petite biscuit with chocolate gravy, candied almonds, Moscato-steeped local berries, and Chilton County peaches.
Subrata will be cooking beef rendang – beef slowly simmered in coconut milk and herbs to create a tender, flavorful stew – and serve it with yellow coconut rice. For dessert, he’s making pandan coconut pound cake with palm caramelized sugar made from fresh pandan leaves and coconut meat.
Griffith’s menu stars pan-seared blackened grouper with crawfish mashed potatoes, edamame and pepper sauté, and balsamic reduction. On the sweet side, she’ll serve white chocolate caramel bread pudding with bourbon ice cream and smoked salt.
Tamburello will offer penne pasta marinara with fresh basil and what he calls “Not Your Nonna’s Meatballs,” which are house-made with beef and pork. He described his dessert, white chocolate bread pudding, as being “like crème brulee and doughnuts had a baby.”
The two chefs with the most votes then go head-to-head, cooking onstage in a battle for the title. A panel of judges chooses the winner. This part of the competition resembles Food Network’s “Chopped” series – except that the Iron City Chef participants aren’t likely to have to figure out how to work weird foods like ostrich eggs and sea cucumbers into their dishes.
“The top two chefs get a protein surprise, such as chicken, beef or fish, and then have access to other ingredients through a pantry,” Howard said, adding that the Iron City Chef finale has “more of a Southern flair” than a “Chopped” angle.
Chef Joseph Mitchell, director of Jefferson State Community College’s Culinary and Hospitality Institute, secures the judges and chooses the protein for the finalists. He and the college are longtime Iron City Chef partners. Jefferson State culinary students help the competing judges at the event, and the student who serves as sous chef to the winner receives a scholarship. Students from Vestavia Hills High School and Pizitz Middle School also will be on hand to bus tables and take on other duties.
Jerry Tracey of Alabama’s 13, another Iron City Chef partner, will be the master of ceremonies.
A first-time partner this year is AHEPA, which Howard said is a fraternal Greek organization much like Rotary International.
Iron City Chef proceeds will provide scholarships for Jefferson State and AHEPA, support the Vestavia Hills High School math and debate teams, and go toward Rotary International programs that improve living conditions for people around the world.
Vestavia Rotary’s partnerships with Jefferson State’s Culinary and Hospitality Institute and Alabama’s 13 – plus overwhelming community support – have allowed the organization to raise more than $150,000 in contributions over the last 10 years.
The evening includes a wine tasting sponsored by Piggly Wiggly. Guests also can buy $20 tickets for the Wine Pull, which Howard said always generates a lot of excitement.
“Wine cork numbers are put in a box for a drawing,” Howard said. “You take home the wine with the matching number – and the wines are valued from $15 to $50.”
There’s a beer tasting, too, with Birmingham’s Ghost Train Brewing Co. providing beer samples.
General admission tickets to Iron City Chef are $55. There are two options for reserved corporate tables: A half table with four seats is $400, and a full table with eight seats is $800. You can buy tickets at vestaviarotary.org.
A variety of sponsorships are still available for Iron City Chef. For more information, visit the website.
Iron City Chef is July 27, with the doors opening at 6 p.m. It’s at Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral, 307 19th St. S in Birmingham. For tickets, sponsorships and more information, visit vestaviarotary.org.
* This post was updated on July 9, 2019 to correct the name of Made Subrata of Shiki Asian Cuisine.