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August 09, 2011

And the Top Chef Is...

Picture 2 "Rabbit is a very subtle meat."

So observed Sean Buchanan last night as he watched his Vermont cheffing compatriots dash around the room during the Fifth Annual Top Chef of the Champlain Valley, held last night at the University of Vermont. Rabbit was the pièce de résistance of the night, and its secret ingredient was confounding: balsamic vinegar, aged in Vermont. 

Chef Donnell Collins of Leunig's Bistro (and her colleagues) were in the house defending her title against challengers Shawn Calley (executive chef at Amuse at the Essex Resort and Spa), and Matt Birong (owner and executive chef at Vergennes' 3 Squares Cafe).

Once the particulars were announced, the chefs and their teams grabbed edibles from a long, loaded banquet table, dicing and wrapping and sauteéing in front of a rowdy crew of 400 onlookers, who were hopped up on locally donated apps such as stuffed mushrooms and veggie-pesto empanadas. The chefs had but 50 minutes to put together a winning appetizer and entreé. For most in the crowd, it was a rare glimpse into the almost balletic teamwork inside restaurant kitchens each night.

Picture 1 In the final moments, Collins sauteéd fresh gnocchi and Birong drizzled a balsamic vinaigrette across his plates. In the end, though, top prize went to Calley and team's carrot soup with balsamic reduction, rabbit quenelles and fried basil, as well as rabbit three ways — livers with Dijon sauce and kohlrabi slaw, seared rabbit loin with balsamic sauce and braised kale, and rabbit ravioli with goat cheese and spinach served on balsamic/blueberry crème fraiche with dusted pistachios. They seemed pretty chuffed about it, too (see photo at right).

“It’s really an honor to be voted Top Chef,” writes Calley in an email. “And I’m very proud of my teammates, master chef Arnd Sievers and chef Jean-Luc Matecat, for doing such a phenomenal job. I wanted to create something that not only shows my passion for food but also reflects what we’re bringing to the area with Amuse. Burlington has never seen a restaurant like this before; it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Amuse opens next week.

Folks at CVAA, which provides services for seniors in northwestern Vermont, reckon the event (and silent auction) raised at least $25,000. Despite the hard and fast competition, the chefs looked like they had a blast — and, from the looks of their dishes, it's worth seeking out a meal from each and every one.

Photos courtesy of The Essex Resort & Spa

This event is obscure now. I mean, Leunigs? The Essex? The real story is the absence of the regions true culinary up and comers (Hen, kitchen table, solstice, farmhouse, Aaron J, etc). This event might as well be called Cooking Event for Second Rate Vermont Eateries.

So tired of reading food reviews, etc. without so much as a thought for the animals killed for your culinary experience. Rabbits (and other animals) are subtle in ways that far surpass the taste of their flesh.

@Sue, why are you such a bitter hater? This is a fantastic event for a great cause! As for the other restaurants you mentioned, they all suck. I just ate at the French Laundry and Fleur D' Lys last month, and I can honestly say that Vermonters are deluded by thinking there is anything CLOSE to good food here. I've eaten at all of the places you mentioned and found them to be unexciting, uninspired, and copying each other constantly. The mantra of maple, bacon, cheddar, and apple lives on!

At LEAST the crew at the Essex and Amuse care deeply about their craft, and they are trying to bring something new to the area that isn't the same old boring stuff. Instead of spending so much time being a hater, why not wait until they open and give them a shot? I know I'm looking forward to it!

Way to go Ben. If you think Leunigs is anything close to good, go ahead and keep eating their. Knock yourself out.

Folks, this story is about the Top Chef event, not a debate over good and bad restaurants. Please stop sniping at one another. Thanks.

Dear Vegetable Lover,
Indeed there is subtlety and great flavor in vegetarian meals. Just don't be obnoxious in lording over the rest of us as you're not winning over any converts and are giving the rest of vegetarians/vegans out there a bad rap. Food is a deeply personal choice and the way to winning is by way of good example, which you're not showing at this moment. Suggest perhaps more food reviews based around vegetarian cuisine. Give constructive criticism and not just criticism for the sake of it.

This story is about raising money for seniors. The top chef event is part of the Meals on Wheels program with the Champlain valley agency on aging. Sue you will be OLD soon and probably be needing meals on wheels as your post is ignorant at best. This story isn't about restaurant reviews. It's about raising money to keep feeding hungry seniors who are less fortunate than you. Take your trash talk to the troll forum. You troll.

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