Arlington’s top chefs beat out the county’s best firehouse cooks at a reality TV-style charity competition fought in Clarendon Wednesday night.
Professional cooks won two out of three “Golden Eggplants” awarded at the Arlington Food Assistance Center‘s third annual Chiefs vs. Chefs benefit.
Given ingredients found in AFAC pantries that serve a growing number of hungry Arlington residents, Arlington County Fire Department Lt. Richard Slusher and Firefighter Anthony Westfall of Station 4 in Clarendon took the first award of the night. They whipped up potato and zucchini latkes with a Mediterranean salsa and lemon-basil sour cream. The firehouse cooks bested chef Tim Ma of the Virginia Square eatery Water & Wall. Ma made a hot dog salad with avocado, corn, fish sauce and palm sugar.
“[The latkes] were elegant, well-seasoned and artful,” judge David Guas of Bayou Bakery said after he announced his vote by hoisting a red sign with a fire hat. “Do you have any more?”
Making a vegetarian chili with crispy chicken confit, chefs Kate Jansen and Tracy O’Grady of the Ballston restaurant Willow won the soup round of the food fight. They beat out Capt. Bosephus “Bo” Bennett of ACFD headquarters and Firefighter David Harrison of Station 5, who made a fall harvest root vegetable soup topped with curry whipped cream.
“It’s creamy and delicious, and the texture is lovely,” ruled judge Shannon Overmiller of Alexandria’s Majestic Cafe.
Bennett, a 14-year veteran of the department, said county firefighters were honored to help AFAC fundraise for needy people.
“It’s for the cause. That’s what we’re here for,” he said, noting that firefighters on calls regularly refer people with empty refrigerators to AFAC’s 18 food distribution sites across the county.
The nonprofit has seen a 40 percent uptick in the number of families it serves, executive director Charles Meng said. AFAC gave food to 1,452 families on average every week from Sept. 2012 to Sept. 2013. At the end of last month, that average had risen to 2,036 families every week.
“The number of families we’re seeing is just going up,” Meng said, explaining that Arlington residents say they’re struggling after sequestration cuts and reductions to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
The competition showed that simple foods can be turned into delicious dishes, Capt. Claude Conde of Station 9 said.
“If you use some imagination, you can get some good, healthy meals out of basic ingredients.”
Conde and Firefighter Joaquin Ibarra of Station 1 competed in the competition’s last round, making an entree of creamy risotto with chicken thighs and eggplant. They faced off against chefs William Morris and Peter Smith of Vermilion in Alexandria, who made a rolled chicken ballotine with chicken mousse, tomato ragu with corn and sweet potato, and charred onion.
The Vermilion chefs won the final Golden Eggplant of the night, after the judges ruled the ACFD dish to be under-seasoned.
AFAC, which is primarily run through donations, raised more than $45,00 from the event, Meng said. He said he was happy to highlight the firehouse-cooking tradition.
ACFD Chief James Schwartz explained why firefighters are such good cooks.
“The secret of firehouse cooking is you either cook or clean up. Either you’re a cook when you get here, or you learn fast,” he said.