The unexpected rain on Sunday in Berkeley didn’t put much of a damper on the 11th annual Spenger’s Restaurant Crabby Chefs Seafood Festival on Fourth Street. The drizzle stopped right before the 2 pm “Iron Chef” cook-off featuring chefs from seven local restaurants, schools, and catering companies.
When I arrived, a little before 2 pm, contest preparations were already under way. Chefs from Picante, Pyramid Alehouse, Origen, A Farm to Table Restaurant, BoilerHouse Restaurant, Giovanni, Picante Cocina Mexicana, Chef James SF, and Contra Costa College Culinary Program were gathered around their temporary kitchens, constructed of folding tables, portable gas burners, and an array of pots and pans.
The chefs knew they would get one whole Dungeness crab and a pound of cooked crab meat to use, along with a mystery ingredient. Rumor had it that the mystery ingredient was cranberries, but that proved to be wrong. At the beginning of the contest, the chefs learned they had to incorporate grapes into their final dishes.
The timer went off and the cooks poised for their battle, scrambling to gather up bunches of grapes and then hurrying to the makeshift larder to pick up onions, peppers, lettuce, cucumbers, avocados, cream, stock, bread crumbs and anything else they wanted to use. Within minutes they were chopping, grinding and sautéeing, and a large crowd gathered to watch. The chefs had 25 minutes to cook, plate their dishes, and set them on a table for judging.
I had been recruited to judge the contest, along with other reporters who were way more “foodie” than I. The two hosts of KSFO-AM’s new show, “Edible Escape,” Anthony Licciardi and Ken Berry, were there, as was Anneli Rufus, a Daily Beast writer who reviews East Bay restaurants for Gayot.com and Peggy Spear, who freelances for the Bay Area News Group and many other places.
The contest was a benefit for Cal Recreational Sports’ summer program, one of many charities that Spenger’s supports throughout the year. The restaurant also raises funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, hosts free dinners for 300-400 former servicemen on Veteran’s Day, and runs a backpack program for school children, among other programs, said Richard Villarreal, the general manager.
Spenger’s presented Cal Recreational Sports with a $2,500 check.
This was not an easy contest to judge since all the dishes were innovative and delicious. But I certainly couldn’t disagree with the winning dish: a corn and crab beignet with grapes, ginger and a honey reduction sauce. I never would have thought of using crab in a sweet dish, but it worked. It was the second year in a row that James Koskiniemi won the contest. A former chef at The Bellevue Club in Oakland, he now runs a catering company called Chef James SF.