Cast Iron Cookoff: Winning Shots

on August 30, 2012

Cast Iron Chefs

The annual Cast Iron Cookoff in Chattanooga, TN, gathers seven sharp chefs for a cast iron challenge unlike any other. At this past year's event, the chefs were required to incorporate shrimp in their dishes and had just $40 to spend on farmers' market ingredients. Emceed by Alton Brown, here is a quick look at the event, the contestants and the winning dishes.

The Sophisticate: Matt Pinner

Quiet, calm and prepared, Matt Pinner traded his goal of becoming an English teacher for a culinary career after discovering that cooking “came easier than the scholastics of college.” For his trademark Southern dishes - sweet-tea-brined chicken, green tomato slaw, sassafras pork chops - he enjoys taking a traditional recipe and “really turning it on its head.”

The Cowboy: John Palacio

A former Marine, John Palacio is known for his signature, marinated pepperloin. He has no qualms about “performing” for a crowd. “It’s not like my first date when I’d go to kiss a girl and didn’t know what to do,” says the down-to-earth chef. “It’s more like I’ve been married 20 years and it comes naturally.”

The Sophisticate's Cast Iron Tip

“When you clean cast iron, it should just be roughed up with salt and maybe some water, wiped out, rinsed quick, oiled and put back in the oven.”

The Maverick's Cast Iron Tip

“Don’t use any type of cleaning detergent on it unless you absolutely have to. Clean it with a towel. You want to build up the seasoning.”

Alton Brown Kicks it Off

Food Network star Alton Brown is an ardent fan of cast iron. “Get a good cure on that pan and never wash it with soap and water,” he says. “I clean mine with some oil and some salt, scrape it out and put it away. It’s the only pan I can’t live without.”

The Experimenter: Eric Taslimi

A “humongous sugar junkie” who indulges in “way more sweet tea than I should,” Eric Taslimi was 9 when his family fled war-torn Iran for Memphis, Tenn. Imaginative and upbeat, he often blends Persian, fruit-infused dishes with Southern soul food and is “pretty good at throwing things together on the spot.”

The Maverick: Daniel Lindley

Independent and “performance-driven,” Daniel Lindley whetted his appetite for the culinary arts while slinging hash aboard a hospital ship in Third World countries. His current crusade: supporting local growers. “Throughout history, food has come from where you are,” he says. “This is going back to how things have always been.”

The Cowboy's Cast Iron Tip

“When you really want to sear something evenly, cast iron’s the way to go. When you first get it, burn it. Put it in your grill outside, over high heat.”

The Earth Mother's Cast Iron Tip

“Don’t be too stuck on what you’re going to do with it. Check out what they have at the market, see what’s available and experiment.”

The Experimenter's Cast Iron Tip

“Don’t let your cast iron rust, and make sure you get it really, really hot, whatever you’re cooking. I use a little Pam, wipe it down and then let it go.”

The Judges

After a fierce and fiery afternoon of cast iron cooking, a panel of judges make their top selections.

The Earth Mother: Susan Moses

Despite the naysayers, Susan Moses, her sister Sally and her mom Maggie launched their contemporary eatery in Chattanooga’s dilapidated downtown in 1992. Moses, who once reeled in the day’s catch as a fishing-boat cook, keeps blazing trails with her environmentally-friendly practices and upscale “peasant fare.” Says Moses: “I am very open to a lot of ideas.”

Second Place: Eric Taslimi

Curried Shrimp with Cinnamon Raisin Toast, Wilted Tatsoi and Peach Compote Taslimi chose this unusual Middle Eastern dish “because I want to do a small bite and give [the judges] a big punch of flavor.” Inspired by the peaches at Chattanooga Market, he picked a fruit theme. “I’m not much for competition, to be honest,” he says. “I’m just having a good time.”

Third Place: Susan Moses

Nori-Wrapped Shrimp, Mashed Potatoes, Corn with Peppers and Lemongrass, Beet Chow-Chow, and Apple Beignet with Scuppernong Jelly Sauce (not pictured) Bent on a sweet ending to her main course, Moses decided to use Mutsu apples in season. “And dessert isn’t dessert without a little cheese,” she says. “There’s a saying I read once - actually, I made it up. ‘A dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.’ It’s kind of weird.”

First Place: Daniel Lindley

Glazed Shrimp with Quinoa and Curried Tomatoes The laidback winner of the 2011 Cast Iron Cookoff devised his recipe off the cuff, with no advance preparation—not even a guess about what he might purchase or cook. “I like Indian food on Sundays,” he says. “That’s why I did the curry. I figured it out as I went.” Recipe: Glazed Shrimp with Quinoa and Curried Tomatoes