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In Coastal Delaware, Food Fights Are a Lot of Fun

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I witnessed two culinary battles last week that produced some tasty dishes and nail-biting moments. Held on Thursday, Sept. 27 in Milton’s fire hall, the third annual King Cole Celebrity Chef Cook-Off was a fundraiser for the Milton Historical Society and the Lydia B. Cannon Museum. The seven participating chefs each made a dish using the kinds of vegetables and fruits that King Cole Cannery in Milton would have packaged.

The largest employer in Milton in the 20th century, King Cole Cannery—later Draper-King Cole Cannery—closed in 1999. It’s now the site of Cannery Village and Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. In addition to certain fruits and vegetables, the chefs could use chicken and beef from area producers Allen Harim and The Butcher Block in Milton.

The crowded second-floor room was perfumed with the smell of Chef Mike Clampitt’s searing scallops, which garnered the People’s Choice Award. Clampitt, the owner of Po’ Boys Creole & Fresh Catch in Milton, garnished the scallops with Cajun corn maque choux.

“It was delicious,” says Bob Yesbek, aka The Rehoboth Foodie, one of the evening’s celebrity judges. “I kept shoveling the maque choux on my dish. I was really glad he won the People’s Choice Award.”

His fellow judges included Eban Brittingham, a manager at Irish Eyes in Milton, and Denise Clemons, author of “A Culinary History of Southern Delaware: Scrapple, Beach Plums & Muskrat.”

According to Yesbek, the trio judged on presentation, taste and best use of the ingredients. In the end, there was a tie between Bethany Blues, which served a smoked chicken leg nestled in a squash with risotto, and Gilligan’s Restaurant and Bar in Lewes, which offered smoked trout with fried kale. Chef Nathan Griffith, who will head up the kitchen in the Milton Gilligan’s when it opens, made the mayonnaise and sour cream from scratch.

Lee Revis-Plank, the interim director of the Milton Historical Society, says the committee is still doing the math, but that the event raised between $14,000 and $15,000. “We’re delighted!”

On Saturday, Sept. 29, six chefs split into teams to duke it out at the Southern Delaware Wine, Food & Music Festival, held at Independence in Millsboro. The Lewes team, led by Matt Kern of Heirloom, included Maurice Catlett of Matt’s Fish Camp in Lewes and Ryan Cunningham, who grew up in Lewes and now is the executive chef at Bonz in Harrington. The Rehoboth team, led by Lion Gardner of the Blue Moon, included Nate Leonard of 208 Social and Jason Dietterick of Bluecoast Seafood Grill + Raw Bar.

Culinary guru Hari Cameron of a(MUSE.) and grandpa(MAC) picked out the secret ingredients, which included wild blue catfish, corn tortillas and Big Oyster’s Shuckin’ Pumpkin Ale. Like a relay race, each team started with one chef, who had 12 minutes to start the dish. When his time was up, he relinquished the burner and the ingredients to the second, who had no idea what the first intended to create. The team captains had to finish the dish, and as the crowd chanted the countdown, they furiously worked to put the proteins on the plate.

I was a judge along with Doug Ruley, vice president of SoDel Concepts, and former restaurateur Jonathan Spivak, who now owns Home on Your Range in Bethany Beach, which offers customized dinner parties. In the end, it was close, but Team Rehoboth won partly for the use of additional ingredients, including chorizo and an egg.

Organizer Stacy LaMotta said the event and its ancillary activities attracted nearly 700 guests and 100 vendors.

If you missed these events, don’t worry. There is no shortage of friendly culinary competitions along the coast. They’re just another a sport at the beach.

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