Chefs showcase flavor of local foods at first 'Farmers Market at the Fair' event

About 200 people watched three teams of Lawrence restaurant chefs buy, prepare, cook and serve up dishes made with local fare.

Then came the best part: taste testing. Delicious, flavorful and inspiring were a few words used to describe the food.

The Chef’s Challenge was part of the first Farmers Market at the Douglas County Fair on Thursday evening at the county fairgrounds, 2110 Harper St. The event was organized by a broad coalition of organizations who seek to support local growers and businesses.

“The purpose of the event was to really call attention to the richness of the food in the valley and to the farmers and to link it with the fair, which already is a celebration of agriculture,” said Julie Mettenburg, coordinator for Our Local Food–Kaw River Valley. “We want people to know that there are a lot of sources for local food around town and it’s really worth seeking out because this shows tonight that it’s really delicious, affordable and amazing and it supports our local economy.”

Nearly 30 vendors were selling a variety of produce, meats and homemade goodies. The Iwig Family Dairy booth was a popular stop because it was selling four flavors of ice cream. Collin Billau, general manager, estimated that he sold more than 140 8-ounce containers.

A majority of the vendors, including Iwig dairy, take part in the Cottin’s Hardware Farmers Market on Thursdays, which moved to the fairgrounds for the event. Although business was slower than the typical market, several said they had new customers and thought it was a worthwhile venture.

“It was a good idea and a lot of fun,” said Stephanie Thomas, of Spring Creek Farm near Baldwin City. “We’d participate again.”

During the three-hour farmers' market, the chefs were cooking and sweating up a storm. Among the competitors were: Ken Baker and Vaughn Good, of Pachamama’s; Subarna Bhattachan and Alejandro Lule, of Zen Zero; and Russ Iversen, Hal Beckerman and Pedro Julio Tovar-Ballagh, of Free State Brewery.

They purchased local ingredients at the farmers' market and then had one hour to prepare their dishes, which included a grilled meat and a side.

The dishes were then judged by Douglas County Commissioner Jim Flory, City Commissioner Mike Amyx and Twilla Brown, a longtime 4-H supporter.

Flory said it was a tough decision.

“Everything was delicious. It was almost impossible to judge because it was all so good,” he said. “The quality and taste of food was excellent all the way around.”

Their vote made up 70 percent of the final decision and then the crowd’s vote was worth 30 percent.

The winner was Free State Brewery. They served up butter-beer-braised pork loin with mashed potatoes and a peach-corn compote that was topped with a huckleberry balsamic vinegar reduction.

But the chefs said it wasn’t about winning or losing; it was about promoting local foods and showing fairgoers just how fresh the local food tastes.

“It was a lot of fun,” Baker said. “We had a great time and would do it again.”

From left in foreground Alejandro Lule, and Subarna Bhattachan, of Zen Zero, begin grilling food Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011, during the Chef's Challenge at the Douglas County Fair. Chefs from three Lawrence restaurants, including Free State Brewery and Pachamamas, competed in the event using locally-grown produce. In background at far left is Pachamama chef Ken Baker and at right is Hal Beckerman, kitchen manager at Free State Brewery.

From left in foreground Alejandro Lule, and Subarna Bhattachan, of Zen Zero, begin grilling food Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011, during the Chef's Challenge at the Douglas County Fair. Chefs from three Lawrence restaurants, including Free State Brewery and Pachamamas, competed in the event using locally-grown produce. In background at far left is Pachamama chef Ken Baker and at right is Hal Beckerman, kitchen manager at Free State Brewery. by Mike Yoder

Tagged: local food, farmers market, Our Local Food-Kaw River Valley

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