Bringing Together Food and Friends For a Fun and Healthy Competition
On a deck overlooking the Potomac River, delicate cocktails grace animated hands and a table sits dressed for the most elegant of four-course meals. Nearby, glazed ceramic tubs of cobalt blue spill over with fountain grass and brightly tangled calibrachoa, providing a retreat for the six couples in a private world of food and conversation.
But this is no Georgetown soirée. This sophisticated space, whims-ically lit by fairy lights and Turkish lamps, also looks out over the clustered homes of the town tucked into a southwest corner of Frederick County. Though rich in history and recreational opportunities, many would be surprised to hear its name paired with an underground foodie movement. Tonight, 12 people are working to change that perception. Another Brunswick Iron Chef Battle has begun.
Two years in the running, Brunswick Iron Chef is the successful innovation of a group of friends, inspired by the format of the popular Food Network show Iron Chef America—with a twist, “We have to work within the reality of kids and schedules,” says Brian Roberts, a regulatory affairs scientist and owner of the fledgling Mad Science Brewing Company. “We get weeks to think about an ingredient—not 45 minutes.”
Tonight’s feature—bacon—was decided by the winner of the Iron Chef dinner two months previously; but the loser had the advantage of choosing first from the course list. “Cocktails, soup or salad, appetizer, main, side, and dessert,” rattles off Tara Ward, a regulatory affairs manager. “Depending on ingredient, some courses are harder than others. So if you’re going to lose, you better lose big.” The ingredient is seasonal when possible, but often, as in the case of tonight’s star, the winner wanted the fun of seeing fellow competitors struggle with certain courses, like dessert or drinks.
“Iron Chef has been a great way for us to challenge our cooking skills,”—Allison Wilder
Wicked motives will be well-rewarded tonight. As guests finish a pre-dinner glass of prosecco, they are handed a cocktail glass edged with bacon salt crumbles and filled with a watermelon-bacon-habañero margarita prepared by the group’s unofficial mixologist, Jamee Robinson, a Virginia school teacher. Sweet, salty and spicy all at once, the refreshing drink elicits raised glasses from the others. Several pick up their score cards to give points on taste, originality and presentation.
And the prize? Between the red glass candelabras and sprays of fragrant sweet pea, sits a funny little visitor: A brass statuette which, among other oddities, sports a champagne cage hat and orange peel sash. Dressed in the remnants of dinners past, he is the Iron Chef trophy and 12 people are determined to wine and dine him and take him home.
Cocktails are swiftly followed by a choice of appetizer, either bacon-and-pecan-crusted goat cheese pops or bourbon bacon-and-apple tarts, the creations of Dan Virgilio and Allison Wilder, both English teachers. This draws good-natured ribbing about over-achieving among academic types, but the laughter soon dies down as flaky puff pastry meets bacon and apple on the tongue.
“Iron Chef has been a great way for us to challenge our cooking skills,” Wilder says later. “We talk about ideas for weeks and make a few trial runs.” She’s quick to point out however that it’s not just about cooking. “I love that it’s an ‘elevated’ meal—the food, the conversation, the décor—it’s all stepped up a bit for Iron Chef and it forces us to treat ourselves to a more grown-up evening. That’s awesome for a family with four kids.”
Not that there aren’t kids involved. Barefoot cherubs waving water pistols run through the back garden as we speak, and the evening is peppered with hands-on parenting and the occasional whimper. This group has children that range in age from 1 to 15 years. “Sometimes they’re present, and sometimes they’re not,” comments Michael Robinson with a wry grin, owner of two of the offspring currently playing Lord of the Flies in a stand of bamboo near the potting shed.
“We all take turns hosting, so whether there’s space for kids is left up to the host,” says Louisa Zimmermann-Roberts, greenhouse manager for Frederick’s Thanksgiving Farms. “If so, we make a pan of mac and cheese and feed them first.”
It is Louisa’s table around which we sit this evening. It is her experienced use of color and form which heightens the senses as the main course and side dish are served: bacon-wrapped scallops with frijoles blanco and coconut bacon rice with a sour cherry chutney. The Wards finish each plate with a tender bacon-and-blue cheese popover.
“Wrap anything in bacon and you’re going to win,”—Kevin Smith, president of Frederick Beer Week
Presentation is at an all time high tonight. Kelly Fowler, owner of the design company, Aurca Studios, can’t stop snapping photos. Those images, and subsequent website, have caused quite a stir with local foodies. Across the river in Virginia, friends have watched these dinners with envious eyes. As a result, the newly launched Lovettsville Iron Chef has issued a challenge for early fall.
“They don’t have a chance,” quips Michael Willburn, self-proclaimed sous chef in his wife’s kitchen. And he holds up the Roberts’ dessert to prove his point—maple-bacon oatmeal cookies topped with a rich bacon gelato.
“Wrap anything in bacon and you’re going to win,” says Kevin Smith, president of Frederick Beer Week and tonight’s scallop chef. But as it happens, he miscalculates. As dusk falls and the sweet bluegrass strains of Mike Ward’s mandolin fill the air, votes are tallied and an underdog winner is announced and trophied—the rice takes it.
At this point in the evening, it seems secondary somehow. A satisfied haze pervades all, redolent of the words of Virginia Woolf: “…how good life seem[s], how sweet its rewards, how trivial this grudge or that grievance, how admirable friendship and the society of one’s kind …”
Dan Virgilio agrees—albeit in the vernacular. “Where else can you get extraordinary conversation, atmosphere and a four-course meal with drinks for less than the price of a burger?” he says, sitting back in his chair with a smile of utter contentment. “Well done, folks.”