by Kat Robinson
Being a great chef in Arkansas is hard enough; there's plenty of others out there who can say they're the best and the brightest. But being recognized by your peers after rounds of competition featuring some of the toughest ingredients in the pantry? That right there earns you the right to become Diamond Chef.
Tim Jones from Pulaski Technical College was onhand last week for the big finale between reigning 2008 Diamond Chef Donnie Ferneau and challenger Michael Powell from Chenal Country Club. His report, plus the secret ingredient, on the jump.
About 450 people attended the event, held in the Wally Allen Ballroom at the Statehouse Convention Center. Festivities included a reception, dinner, live and silent auctions and a raffle. The focal point was a fast-paced, 60-minute cooking competition in which the two chefs and their sous chefs competed in a format similar to that of the popular Iron Chef television series.
While guests enjoyed their own three-course meal, the chefs each created three dishes, which were judged on plate presentations, creativity, taste, sanitation and safety.
Each chef and his sous chefs prepared dishes using a surprise ingredient, announced just before the start of the competition: rattlesnake.
Powell's dishes displayed remarkable creativity. The first course was a cured rattlesnake "tartare" topped with butter-poached sunny-side-up quail egg, fingerling potato gaufrettes, creole mustard vinaigrette, herb salad, fleur de sel and peppercorn mélange.
The second course consisted of crispy rattlesnake tacos with shredded bibb lettuce and avocado, along with reconstructed pico de gallo (stacked sliced heirloom tomatoes, shallot julienne, paper thin slices of jalapeno pepper and cilantro) with a spicy red curry aioli.
His final creation was rattlesnake-wrapped scallops and chicken fried rattlesnake, seared foie gras, compressed spinach and roasted oyster mushrooms on a crostini, served with lobster and veal beurre monte and truffle cream.
The contest was a close one as Donnie Ferneau and his team brought the imaginative flair that has driven the popularity of his restaurant. His initial plate was a crunchy rattlesnake and ahi tuna roll with ginger-lime ponzu, couple with a micro-green salad with an orange and pepper vinaigrette with pistachios.
The last course consisted of rattlesnake and wild mushroom ravioli with whipped lobster brandy butter, arugula pesto and fried arugula.
Pamela Smith, anchor for KATV, served as emcee for the event, while Lisa Fischer and Jeff Matthews from B98.5 provided play-by-play commentary for the audience.
Guest judges included Chef Andre Poirot, executive chef for the Peabody Hotel; Jim Montgomery, state training director and special events manager for Glazers Distributors; and Chef Capi Peck, executive chef and owner of Capi's and Trios restaurants. Robert Hall, executive chef of the University of Central Arkansas Dining Services, served as technical judge scoring each chef on sanitation and safety.
The $125-a-plate event was organized by the Pulaski Technical College Foundation and raised more than $85,000 for the Pulaski Technical College Arkansas Culinary School, which currently serves about 180 students. The school offers associate degrees in culinary arts and in hospitality management and technical certificates in culinary arts, baking and pastry, and wine and spirits studies.
Pulaski Technical College is a comprehensive, two-year college that serves the educational needs of central Arkansas through more than 50 occupational/technical degree and certificate programs, a university-transfer curriculum and specialized programs for business and industry.
The college’s mission is to provide access to high quality education that promotes student learning, to enable individuals to develop to their fullest potential and to support the economic development of the state.