Testing One’s Culinary Mettle
By Laurie Beth Gills
…And they’re off! A flame has sparked on this day as I sit in front of my computer typing initial notes, and conjuring up flavors and ingredients for the big day on November 1.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Montpelier Hunt Races on the historic grounds of James Madison’s lifelong home, Montpelier, in Orange County, Va. Along with the races comes a most anticipated event that I can’t seem to get enough of…the time honored tailgating contest!
“Why plan so early?” friends ask. “Really, are you kidding me?” is usually my standard thought or reply. For me, the Montpelier Tailgating Contest provides the ultimate cooking challenge—testing one’s culinary mettle and more. It measures and spurs my courage, creativity and backbone (the latter quite literally). Despite the formidable challenges the event provides, I find myself returning year after year.
Do we live in a competitive, showy food culture? Take a quick glance at your smart phone, or pick up any magazine and you’ll quickly find the answer is yes. What’s not so clear is just how far a chef will to go to win first place in a competition. Many will run the distance as I have witnessed in previous years, seeking to quell the competition. Others will own a different attitude with a less-stress, easy-going approach. The latter, less stressful approach is the one I try to adopt, but there will always be moments of chaos that are out of your control. Expect the unexpected, and perhaps you’ll gain an edge!
So do you think you have what it takes to step into the winner’s circle? With a pinch of moxie and a zest for cooking, success can be had! Just know that once the decision has been made to enter the tailgating contest, the competition has begun and it’s time to start planning.
Personally, I think that the initial planning process is tons of fun, with my favorite part being the menu writing. Planning the menu gives me the perfect excuse to browse through my favorite cookbooks, cooking blogs and magazines more than I already do.
There are many reasons to join in the competition, and I’d like to encourage you to do so! For me, the creative process of making high-caliber food and being judged by exemplary chefs is what drives me to compete. I’m also driven by the innate passion I’ve had for food ever since I was a child making mud-based meatballs!
Of course, there’s also a teensy-tiny part of me that loves the competitive nature of the event. No matter where your motivation comes from, every reason to compete is a good one. Be it the competitive edge, a mad passion for cooking, or just spending the day sporting at the races with family, friends and good eats.
In order to engineer a successful event, you must begin planning early. If you’re planning on participating in the competition this year (and I do hope you will!) the following tips are things I’ve learned through my experiences at the races in years past.
- First things first. Visit the official Montpelier Hunt Race website at (www.montpelierraces.org). Read all there is to read about the contest. You’ll find a complete listing of the official rules, and there’s also a phone number posted on the site so you can contact the office directly with any questions.
- Remember that when crafting your menu, pay close attention to the selected theme. Each year judges choose a unique theme for their spectacular event. Last year, 2013, celebrated the year “1938” in honor of Marion du Pont Scott’s beloved horse, Battleship, who became the first American horse to win the British Grand National. Keeping the theme for the year in mind, your menu should reflect the times, the people, and naturally the food. Also recognize the lead judge. A new judge is recruited each year, so take notice – some rules/requirements can shift a bit as well.
- You’ll notice that table décor can be quite elaborate at the hunt races, but when it comes to judging food, I’d like to think that this holds little weight. It is about the food, so focus on the food. Don’t be intimidated by the elaborate tablescapes and think you need to spend a fortune on décor. As a matter of fact, during the years I’ve competed, there was a separate prize awarded to the best table design. So if you’d like to compete in this particular part of the competition, know that the table display should also relate with the year’s select theme. Again, make certain to check the Montpelier website for the complete scoop.
- There is one key factor that is completely uncontrollable and will effect the quality of the whole day; Mother Nature. Rain or shine, frigid cold or even a foot of snow, the race is guaranteed to continue on, and so will you. A warm, comfortable pair of boots, cozy sweater, and a bottle of your favorite libation are highly recommended.
- For all practical purposes, it’s best to prepare as much food as you possibly can ahead of time. And seriously, don’t think that you need to be a caterer or chef extraordinaire. You just simply need to be well organized and a good cook with a good attitude. Trust me, a crazy adrenaline rush that magically appears about three days prior to the event will quickly put an end to any lackadaisical tendencies.
There is no better place to trumpet one’s fine food and creative design than at the Montpelier Hunt Race and Tailgating Contest. Whatever drives you to the horse race, rest assured, you’re guaranteed a winning day. I hope my tale of tailgating will inspire and coax you into coming out and enjoying this magnificent day and all it has to offer. See you on November 1!
Here’s a winning recipe from last year’s event. Pissaladière. The classic French “pizza” tart with caramelized onions and anchovies. The judges enjoyed it and I hope you and your family do too!
Serves: 4 to 6
2 TBS unsalted butter
¼ cup olive oil
2 lbs yellow onions – thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves
1 bouquet garni
Pinch of salt
1 quality pizza-bread dough (roughly 28 oz)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
12 to15 anchovies – soaked in milk for 30 minutes if too salty; halved lengthways
25 small, black, pitted olives (preferably Niçoise)
Fresh, young thyme sprigs
Melt butter with the olive oil in a heavy saucepan and add the onions, garlic and bouquet garni. Season lightly with salt. Cover and cook gently over low heat for 45 – 50 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened but not browned. Discard the garlic and bouquet garni. Let cool at room temperature. Drain off excess oil.
On a lightly floured counter, roll dough to roughly fit a 13 ½ x 10 ½ inch shallow baking tray. Press the dough all over the pan to make a thin, even base. Chill for 20 minutes before baking. (For a crispier crust, simply bake dough directly on a hot pizza stone.)
Pre-heat the oven to 400°F. Use a fork to spread out the onions lightly and evenly over the entire pizza base. Lay the anchovies in a lattice pattern over the onion and then arrange the olives inside the lattice diamonds. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the dough is cooked and lightly browned. Sprinkle with the remaining thyme and cut into squares. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.
About the Author: Chef Laurie Beth Gills is the owner and Executive Chef of LB’s Classic & Contemporary Cooking, a culinary instruction and catering service. She is the founder of Fredericksburg’s first fine dining group, LB’s Foodies, which organizes exclusive dinners at local fine dining establishments. Additionally, she has earned certification as a Master Gardener, and currently volunteers as a Gardener Ambassador for Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Gardens at Monticello. Her unique combination of culinary and gardening expertise have lead her to offer garden consulting services, with an emphasis on gardening for the kitchen.