Annual Beaver Creek Master Chef Classic returns
The chefs are in town – better get the carnies.The Master Chef Classic, presented by food and lifestyle magazine Bon Appetit, kicks Beaver Creek from posh mountain resort to culinary hotspot. Pastry classes, cocktail demonstrations, and snowy rambles finished with multi-course meals are all part of the program. But the festival’s signature event is the Master Chef Challenge, an Iron-Chef-style cooking competition that pairs up local and celebrity chefs, and pits them against each other.Each team is given a workspace, a pantry of staples, a secret ingredient and 20 minutes to create two dishes. Bon Appetit Editor-in-Chief Adam Rapoport and Bon Appetit wine and spirits consultant Steven Olson will taste each dish and decide on the winners of the round. The same thing happens for round two. The winners from the first two rounds meet up in round three, which determines the overall winner.It all happens not in one of the well-stocked, professional Beaver Creek kitchens that regularly turn out excellent cuisine, but on the stage of the Vilar Performing Arts Center. Those who have seen shows at the Vilar Center know that it doesn’t usually have a couple of fully stocked, working kitchens just hanging about on the stage for most of the year. But come Master Chef time, Nathan Cox, Michael Baugh, Claire Tyler and the rest of his crew at Pink Monkey Solutions transform the space into Beaver Creek’s own version of Kitchen Stadium. And they get a day to do it.”We’re theater people, we’re carnies,” Cox said. “We are definitely not chefs.”But that doesn’t stop them from stocking the pantries, organizing the kitchens’ layout, hooking up all of the appliances (with the help of an electrician), choosing the secret ingredients and even writing scripts for the event, which may or may not be used. Not bad for a group that prefers to think about paper lanterns and fabrics rather than flavors.
The real kicker is that Cox doesn’t want the scene to look like a couple of kitchens on a stage. Instead, he strives to build them their own space, to make it feel real and integral. By all accounts he succeeds.”There are a lot of moving parts,” Cox admitted, speaking about the scope of the event.In addition to the ranges, ovens, refrigerators and countertops, he also considers the lighting, the backdrop and the kitchen design.”I make a culinary fascia, so it looks like its own space,” he said. “What we’re trying to create is the show, so the chefs have to feels like they’re in a real, working kitchen.””The stage kitchen is awesome,” said Beano’s Cabin Executive Chef Steven Topple, past winner and current contender. “It is a little dark in some spots so you can be put off about a temperature of meat, but there are actually lots of great items in the pantry to use with the secret ingredient – more than in my home at this time, as I work so much. There are lots of things to play with to make the secret ingredient shine, plus there are little gadgets that are lots of fun.”He does miss knowing exactly where everything is – the tongs he can reach for immediately at home might require a bit of searching in the new kitchen.”And time is of the essence but that is true for the celebrity chefs – they have no idea where things are so that makes us all equal,” Topple said. “The only thing I wish we had more of is time – wow, only 20 minutes – but that is what makes it fun.”
Ultimately, Cox can’t just think about the mechanics of the event. He has to engineer the flow and energy, too. It is, after all, less about cooking and more about entertainment – edible performing arts. Pink Monkey Solutions has been producing the event for several years now. It’s a case where “been there, done that,” works to their advantage. Pink Monkey has produced a similar event in Las Vegas.”Every year it gets simpler, so we can focus on how the show actually goes,” Cox said.Instead of agonizing over what kinds of cheese graters to buy, or where to store the 40-pound tanks of propane required to run the ranges (“chefs prefer cooking on fire,”), he can turn his energy to the event itself.”There has to be excitement and movement,” he said. “Also, cool and interesting lighting, background music, and we want moments of fun and intensity. At the same time, you have to keep it moving. … We always bring in audio and video production, too. And the staff at the Vilar Center is just great.”For the video portion of the event, which includes multiple camera angles that are shown on the enormous screen on stage, THD Productions lends a hand.”We have the live angle from the front, plus two handheld cameras,” Cox said. “And last year we added direct overhead angles, which are my favorite. They’re two robotic cams, and they show what they’re slicing or stirring.”A lot of the event has to do with the host, who in the past has been Iron Chef Cat Cora. This year, Bon Appetit Restaurant Editor Andrew Knowlton and Bon Appetit Chef de Cuisine Mary Nolan will be the masters of ceremonies.After the 20-minute rounds, followed by the presentation of the dishes to the judges, there’s a 15-minute break which has Cox scurrying around, getting the hand tools into buckets so they can be washed, setting up the kitchens to look like they haven’t been used already, and all the while keeping tabs on the flow of the show and the audience’s mood.”Every year we find new stuff to think about – the beauty, the flow, the presentation,” Cox said. “Really, it’s about the entertainment value. The best way is for everyone to just have fun.”But just to hedge their bets, complimentary food and drinks will be offered to the audience in the lobby between rounds. Bon Appetit.
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