Dozens of people gathered under the shade of a huge, white tent Thursday evening at the Douglas County Fairgrounds to watch three Lawrence chefs create dishes filled with locally grown or locally produced fare.
As the chefs grilled and mixed, they talked about where they got their ingredients and how to prepare them.
They were participating in the second annual Chefs' Challenge, which was part of the Farmers’ Market at the Douglas County Fair. While the chefs put on a cooking demonstration, nearly 30 vendors were selling a variety of produce, meats and homemade goodies nearby.
The event was organized by a broad coalition of organizations that seek to support local growers and businesses.
“It’s really to celebrate our creative chefs and the delicious local produce that’s available right now,” said Eileen Horn, sustainability coordinator for Douglas County and the city of Lawrence.
The competitors in the challenge were: Dave Nigro, of Clinton Parkway’s Hy-Vee Food Store; Wallace Cochran, of The Merc; and last year’s champion, Russell Iverson, of Free State Brewery. Each year, the champion receives the opportunity to defend his or her title against two new contestants.
The champion is named by a panel of three judges and from those in the audience who sampled the dishes.
Sadie Keller, who will be a sophomore at Lawrence High School, said she liked Nigro’s dish the best. It was a rack of goat with ratatouille and an arugula salad with tomato vinaigrette.
“I really liked the goat and I thought there were more interesting flavors going on, and it was something that I had never tried before but I really liked,” she said.
Keller, who enjoys cooking and has been featured on the local cooking show “Jayni’s Kitchen,” said the chefs gave her ideas to try at home.
“It’s pretty amazing how they can creatively come up with different things to make," she said.
The champ was Cochran, of The Merc, and his dish of beef barbecue with a cold tomato melon salad.
“It was fun and I really enjoyed it,” said Cochran, who has been a chef for about 20 years.
He said there was a bounty of local produce to work with despite the area’s drought and triple-digit temperatures. Cochran used produce from a variety of local farms, including a school garden and Maggie’s Farm. The owner of Maggie’s Farm, Barbara Clark, served as one of the judges along with Douglas County Commissioner Nancy Thellman and Michael Beard, chef at 715 restaurant.
“It was an extremely difficult job,” Clark said laughing. “Having to sit in the shade and eat fine food. I mean it’s not too bad. It was great.”
She said the hardest part was voting on a winner.
“They were all wonderful dishes, and everybody was great with using local produce. It was a tough decision.”