REPORTING FROM ROSEMONT, ILL. — On Thursday, Aug. 11, four teams of all-star chefs chopped, stirred, pureed and sautéed themselves into a frenzy as they competed with every ounce of their creativity to capture the coveted 2017 Spectra Culinary Innovation Summit’s “Knifey Award.”
The occasion was the first-of-its-kind Spectra by Comcast Spectacor Culinary Innovation Challenge, staged in the test kitchens of U.S. Foods in the Chicago suburb of Rosemont, Ill. The event saw chefs from Spectra-managed venues across North America — including stadiums, arenas, convention centers, public assembly venues and festivals — vying to best each other in cooking up fresh new items worthy of roll-out to Spectra venues nationwide.
In the days leading up to the Challenge, no one was more excited about its possibilities than the event's mastermind, Philadelphia-based Spectra by Comcast Spectacor vice president of culinary excellence Scott Swiger. “We have a very innovative culinary team,” he said.
“These guys and girls are out there doing their work individually. We thought it would be great to have them together and working collaboratively to share ideas. Our sponsor partners will have their development chefs and product experts there. And while they won't be cooking, they are there to share their wealth of knowledge. The goal is to walk away with the best possible items to roll out to our different venues.”
The chefs were hand-picked by Spectra's team of regional executive chefs, who sought to not only gather a representative sampling of chefs from Spectra’s more than 200 client properties, but to liberally pepper the roster with the most innovative of all of those culinary stars.
This top-shelf assemblage converged on Chicago from casinos, events centers, and baseball stadiums ranging from a Northern California Major League team (the Oakland Athletics) to a Northern Florida Minor League franchise (the Pensacola Blue Wahoos).
The event was convened in the Windy City for multiple reasons. “Our partner, U.S. Foods, is based in Chicago,” Swiger said. “It has a great product development kitchen, and is one of the most valuable partners we work with on a daily basis. And Chicago is a terrific, centrally-located destination to bring chefs together. The city also boasts a wonderful culinary scene.”
As Swiger noted, the ultimate objective was to build on a culture of innovation and collaboration to generate a half dozen items and recipes with potential for venues across the Spectra organization. “Innovation is part of our DNA,” he asserted.
“One of the original drivers was how do we take our best practices and scale them? This is one of the ways to reward those innovators across our organization, and then scale the results so we can have some of what we call 'game changers' added to our menus.”
After an introductory PowerPoint presentation by U.S. Foods' brands chef Kathleen Hoffman, the Spectra chefs “drew ladles” to determine the composition of their teams. Team One was comprised of Travis Wilson of Blue Wahoos Stadium in his hometown of Pensacola, Fla. and Philadelphia native Mark Borowski, of Jungle Island, Miami. Team Two was made up of Ft. Lauderdale-raised Effie Speigler of Oakland-Alameda County Stadium; Providence native Bob St. Lawrence, executive chef of Spectra's Northeast and Southeast Division; and Indianola, Iowa’s own Chad Vanderploeg of Iowa Events Center in Des Moines.
Flying the colors of Team Three were London-born Christopher Walters of Columbus Georgia Convention and Trade Center; Grass Valley, Calif.-raised Ryan Curry, of Isotopes Park in Albuquerque, N.M., and Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho, N.M.; and Reading, Pa. native Ronald “Chip” Romig Jr. of Wild Horse Pass Hotel and Casino in Chandler, Ariz.
Finally, Team Four consisted of New Orleans-bred Elizabeth Barlow of Talen Energy Center in Philadelphia; Beach Haven, N.J. native George Fisher of Atlantic City Convention Center and Boardwalk Hall; and Ft. Washington, Md. favorite son Michael Pulscak, executive chef for Spectra's Western and Central Division.
Each team having been tasked with creating two breakthrough concepts and recipes, they were given a single hour to brainstorm possible approaches. After a sumptuous U.S. Foods-supplied lunch highlighted by barbecued chicken and meatless wings and Pumpkin Spice Latte ice cream, the teams hit the ground running to create signature dishes. They were granted 90 minutes of open kitchen time to perfect their respective dishes.
As the teams worked, some of the chefs allowed themselves to be grilled by a camera crew. “Family equals love equals food, and it translates into everything I do,” Barlow told an interviewer, adding she relished being part of a synergistic process of creating new items. “Bringing in different cultures and collaborating with other groups is important,” she noted.
Walters spoke of the joys of working with fresh foods and a great staff in a setting delivering tons of character-building hurdles. “I love challenges, and I get a lot of them working at a convention center,” he said, referring to days when groups of perhaps 200 people show up unexpectedly, demanding to eat. “I like to put different ethnic foods together and make them my own . . . [From here] I’ll take back inventive approaches and new products to my team.”
Meantime, the panel of judges girded themselves for the grueling task of devouring their way through the chefs’ creations. That august tribunal included James Beard Award semifinalist Abraham Conlon, who with his wife and partner Adrienne Lo created Chicago restaurants Fat Rice and The Ladies Room; American Academy of Chefs member Mark Eggerding, vice president of Brand Activation for U.S. Foods; Ben Gibbs, Spectra general manager of Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates, Ill., two time James Beard Award
winner Jean-Marie Lacroix, the chef partner of Brulee Catering and a legendary figure on Philadelphia's culinary scene; and Chicago-based independent writer Jeffrey Steele.
Jurists were informed they would rate teams’ creations on a list of criteria to include flavor and taste, texture, appearance, flexibility and paired beverage, bestowing between five and one points for each. Perhaps most importantly, they were required to judge the innovative eats on the basis of applicability to settings across the full spectrum of Spectra properties.
In the early going, the chef teams rushed about the test kitchen in a commotion of culinary cleverness, indulging in good-natured bantering and a bit of “trash talk” with opposing team members. But as a trio of gleaming Knifey Awards were lovingly placed on a stainless steel prep table within the chefs’ gaze, and the clock inexorably ticked down to the 3 p.m. judging hour, the atmosphere morphed into one of quiet determination. Clearly, reputations and bragging rights were on the line. Onlookers soon came to grips with an indisputable fact.
The tension in the test kitchen had grown so thick, you could cut it with a Knifey.
When the moment for judging arrived, the chef teams presented a dozen inspirations, ranging from vegetarian muffalattas and “Sustain-a-Burgers” to citrus pork empanadas with tropical super-slaw and beer-infused beef short rib sandwiches.
The winner? Baseball-sized “Pretzel-Crusted Philly Cheesesteak Croquets,” rolled in ground soft pretzel, fried to a golden brown and served with a warm beer cheese dipping sauce, created by Team One. The runner-up, a trailblazer from the same team, was the “Flatiron Steak Churasco,” a cone of flatbread filled with low-country slaw, chipotle vinaigrette and beef skewers and topped with chimichurri popcorn.
As they clutched their Knifey Awards, Team One members vowed to defend their title next year. That was good news for attendees.
It suggested this, the introductory Culinary Innovation Challenge, would not be just a single serving, but only the first dish in a multicourse feast.