The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Life!

January 26, 2014

From cast iron to the grid iron

RGH surprises with big win at culinary competition

Hospital food jokes have officially lost their punchlines, courtesy of a health care institution leaving as victor its first year in a serious culinary competition.

There was no punting necessary Jan. 18 at The Greenbrier resort, when the Best Single Course winner of the 9th Annual West Virginia Cast Iron Cook-Off turned out to be — not a restaurant, not a resort — but a hospital Nutrition Services department.

Raleigh General Hospital walked away with two of the highest commendations and a third place overall finish at the prestigious showcase of Appalachian culinary talent. The competition included eight teams of top chefs paired with foodies from around West Virginia sponsoring as individuals.

RGH’s accomplishment cannot be underestimated, explains Allen Arnold, director of the Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia and coordinator for the event.

“The Cast Iron Cook-Off, during each of its nine years of existence, has always attracted as competitors the very top chefs and properties in the state, including The Greenbrier,” he stated.

“At this level of competition, for them to come in out of the starting gate and do so well is unbelievable. The Greenbrier did that (their first year), but most places don’t,” Arnold explained.

Adding to the challenge of timed execution, teams had to use local farm products or only those items indigenous to West Virginia while “reinventing” traditional Appalachian recipes.

Each of the eight teams was also required to employ the help of a high school student, in the spirit of promoting future chefs.

“This really is the premier culinary event in the state and winning it is quite an achievement,” Arnold commented.

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A seasoned competitor, RGH Executive Chef Kris Siuta said even more impressive than the Best Single Course award for Smoked Trout Mousse with Pickled Vegetables, Cumberland Sauce and Smoked Trout Fritter was a Best Teamwork win.

“The most pressure I felt was to not let the team down. I wanted them to learn.”

Taking into consideration individual sponsors paying $300 to participate as team members, Chef Siuta’s goal was to give the gastronomes an experience they wouldn’t regret.

For composition of the dishes, he and sous chef Andy McGhee relied mostly on their team, including RGH CEO David Darden who championed the winning entry with enthusiasm.

“I made the recipe, but the dish was his. He made most of it,” said Siuta.

Commented Darden, “Kris and our entire Nutritional Services department work hard every day to take hospital food to the next level. This is a great example of what our folks are capable of and we couldn't be happier to be in such good company with so many premier chefs.”   

Would it be fair to say the RGH team, the clear long shot upon entry, walked away feeling like rock stars? “It was crazy. When I looked up from plating, there must have been 50 to 60 people just staring at us,” said Siuta, describing the initial shock. “The day after, the bellman says, ‘Hey — you’re the chef from the hospital!,’” said Siuta.

At the end of the day and from among a host of them, perhaps the highest compliment paid came from a judge, Suita recalls, what might have been an insult to any other entrant. “He said ‘I can’t wait to get sick, because this is where I’m going.’”

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Switching gears to the competition of the hour, Chef Siuta will be rooting for the Broncos next Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. He proves that a fine culinary pedigree and maintaining a man card are not mutually exclusive.

While the ladies are perfectly welcome to continue playing hostess for the pinnacle of football games, the simple yet oh-so-rich Italian Fat Cat Sandwich, crunchy yet modestly breaded Oven Fried Coconut Shrimp and “no one can have just one” brined, smoked wings are delicious enough to guarantee empty plates and applause, yet fool-proof enough for novice “chefs” to assemble. No precise measurements here — as “guys” are likely to eyeball it anyway.

Be fearless. “Anyone can do these,” Siuta says.

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