Tom Ross: Are you 'The Next Food Network Star'?

I'd like my fish pan-seared with an orange balsamic drizzle



Winery representative Stewart Vandenberg, left, pours a taste of wine for Tom Gray, right, during the annual Steamboat Wine Festival's Stroll of Steamboat event Friday evening on the courthouse lawn.

— Good evening folks. Tonight's specials include a roulade of Idaho chukkar breast marinated in Snake River gooseberry confit and topped with a juniper reduction and dollops of crÃme fraiche de chanterelle.

It's quite wonderful, and I'd be happy to recommend a zinfandel that complements it.

Have you ever been seated at a fine restaurant, perused the menu and wondered to yourself, "Who writes this stuff?"

Moi aussi (Me too, bubba).

I had a chance to explore that mystery and others Saturday afternoon while judging the "Steel Chef" competition during the grand tasting at the Steamboat Wine Festival.

It was a treat to be invited to take part in the event - my family has grown fond of the "Iron Chef America" TV show on the Food Network. It's the show that served as the basis of last week's Steel Chef showdown in Steamboat Springs.

If you haven't seen the TV show, the original was produced in Japan and featured two chefs, one master and one less-renowned challenger.

The two chefs face off in "Kitchen Stadium" and after being handed a basket of secret ingredients, they are given just 60 minutes to prepare several dishes with which to wow the judges.

The format creates a ton of tension and reliably fascinating results. The spate of new cooking shows also wins decent Nielsen Ratings. A companion show to Iron Chef, the "The Next Food Network Star," captured 2.6 million viewers during its July 15 episode and won a 2.1 household rating among adults ages 25 to 54.

The Steamboat Wine Festival's Steel Chef competition, hosted by Viking appliances, seemed to be a big crowd pleaser. Of course, my perception was influenced by a couple of glasses of cabernet sauvignon.

The two chefs were Jen Jasinski of Rioja restaurant in Denver and Stephen Asprinio, a Las Vegas sommelier and chef. Both are graduates of the Culinary Institute of America in New York.

Jasinski told us she was formerly a corporate chef for Wolfgang Puck. For a decade, she helped him to open restaurants and develop menus around the country. Asprinio has gained national fame through his appearance on Bravo TV's "Top Chef" reality show. He is the former sommelier at Nob Hill in the MGM Grand and intends to return to the kitchen with an enterprise of his own.

My fellow judges included Steamboat's John Centner (does anyone know if that guy can cook?) and longtime chef and food researcher Mark Beem of the Darden Restaurant Group. Beem's company owns the Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Smokey Bones and Bahama Breeze.

The chefs wowed us cooking with a basket of secret ingredients that included bison steak, fresh figs and eggplant. I don't typically care for eggplant, but Jasinski won me over with her preparation of eggplant "shingles." Later, she told me that most people undercook eggplant and fail to peel it before cooking. Asprinio's bison tartare (that's raw baby) in fresh cherries was better than excellent.

In the end, Jasinski scored a slim victory.

Realizing my chances of becoming a celebrity chef are slim and none (and Slim just left town), I asked Beem if there are professional menu writers who make a career out of penning those lavish entree descriptions we've all heard our food servers recite.

To my surprise, Beem said not only do restaurant corporations hire people to write their menus, the starting salary is in the range of $50,000 plus bonuses.

Out of curiosity, I went online Monday to check out the menus for Darden Restaurant Group.

If you were seated at the Bahama Breeze near Chagrin Falls, Ohio, tonight, I'd suggest you start with "Tostones with Chicken" (thick slices of home-fried plantains layered with chicken, sweet peppers, cheese and topped with fresh tomato salsa), and for an entree, select the "fresh fish pan-seared with orange balsamic drizzle."

I may never appear on the Food Network, but I'll bet I made your tummy rumble just now, and I just might try a little freelance menu writing on the side.

Roulade of Idaho chukkar breast anyone?


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