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Iron Horse Chef puts focus on local food

A mere six years ago, we at La Plata County Extension along with numerous other partners – Healthy Lifestyles La Plata, Growing Partners and Durango Farmers Market – thought it would be fun to have a cooking demonstration.

But not just any demonstration. No, no, we wanted a challenge that would highlight the amazing restaurants in our area while, at the same time, showcase all of the fresh food found at the farmers market.

The Iron Horse Chef – its name, a combination of a TV show with a cult following and our beloved train – was born in part because we were able to find four chefs – Chris Crowl, Dave Cuntz, Dave Stewart and Will Nolan – willing to be our sacrificial lambs (and goats, and pigs and steers). They were the first to attempt to cook multiple dishes from a “kitchen” erected at the Durango Farmers Market in the First National Bank parking lot.

Good luck, boys! Have fun braving the river’s rapids! But they all performed beyond anybody’s expectations, other than perhaps their own. And even now, after five more years and eight more chefs, I am constantly astounded at the quantity, quality and beauty of food all these chefs have created in a single hour. We have seen breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert; completely vegetarian courses and meat wrapped in meat; pizza, zucchini bread, soup and even ice cream.

So once again, the Iron Horse Chef is set to begin. This Saturday, the semifinal will pit chef Safari Ngumbao of Mahogany Grille and Sean Clark, executive chef at Steamworks and soon-to-be-open El Moro Spirits & Tavern, in a friendly and fun competition. They each have a partner, a student from Durango High School’s ProStart Culinary Team, and as a pair will have an hour and a half to shop, create a menu and prepare dishes for four very lucky judges.

While these judges are definitely the fortunate ones, the event also is spectator friendly. And even though your love of getting splattered with tomato juice or having a carrot peel stuck to your skin can be questioned, we encourage observers to talk to the chefs, ask them questions and watch how they prepare the food.

The reason we do the event is simple: to make Durango Farmers Market an even more crowded space on a Saturday morning. If you thought the line was nerve-racking at Stone Free Farms at 8 a.m., wait until you have an anxious chef, under the pressure of a not-so-calming clock, trying to get that same bag of carrots or early-season tomatoes.

We want to demonstrate how important supporting local agriculture is to the community and educate attendees about the benefits of eating locally grown food. We also have been able to showcase several restaurants that support local agriculture through putting locally grown vegetables, fruit, meat and other items on their menus.

The chef whom judges deem the winner of this event will go on to face the defending champions, the chefs from Manna Soup Kitchen, on Aug. 17, and the winner will be able to wear the title – and the chef’s coat – of Iron Horse Chef Champion 2013.

parmenterdm@co.laplata.co.us or 382-6464. Darrin Parmenter is director and horticulture agent of the La Plata County Extension Office.

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