Inside The Lumiere Place Cajun Cook-Off

 In Food

It’s going to be a cooking frenzy at Soulard Market Park this weekend for the Lumiere Place Cajun Cook-Off. Ten of St. Louis’ hottest chefs—including Cassy Vires of Juniper, Mike Randolph of Half & Half and The Good Pie, Jason Tilford of Mission Taco Joint and more—will be randomly paired with 10 local amateur chefs to face-off in a mystery ingredient-driven culinary championship this Saturday, Jan. 31, from 12-4pm.

Photo courtesy of Tom Schmidt

Photo courtesy of Tom Schmidt

On the Mardi Gras board for about six years and the chairman for the past year and a half, chef and owner of Franco and Salt + Smoke, Tom Schmidt caught up with ALIVE on the challenges, who’s competing and more on this weekend’s culinary tournament in Soulard.

ALIVE: How did this year’s Cajun Cook-Off come together compared to past year?
Tom Schmidt: Last year was the first year I really got involved with the Cajun Cook-Off. There’s been so much amazing culinary prowess and talent developed in St. Louis over the last 10 years, and we just tried to incorporate more of those people you read about all the time. So it was about finding the hot people and getting them involved with the professional side of the event, and we had a great time.

This year we decided to re-tool it to make it more exciting. We changed the whole format. Mike Johnson of Sugarfire, the Mardi Gras crew and I got together—as well as Nancy Tucker who is the chair of that event specifically—got together and re-worked it top to bottom. There was always a professional and amateur division, but this year we’re teaming up a professional with an amateur.

ALIVE: What does the competition format look like?
TS: So they’re competing in a “Top Chef” style. We’ll release a mystery ingredient, and the chefs will have about four hours to shop at the (Soulard) market, use a commissary that US Foods is providing like stoves and grills, then they work to make the best dish they can for presentation. So there’s really a lot more energy to it, a lot more running around, a lot more thinking on your feet, whereas before you submitted your recipe two weeks in advance. This is a little bit more how chefs work in terms of thinking on your feet and flying without a net type stuff.

ALIVE: What do you think the biggest challenge will be?
TS: I think the biggest challenge in something like this is not being able to cook in your controlled kitchen environment. You know, you’re cooking kind of outside with remote things and you’re not in your kitchen where you have the muscle memory if you close your eyes and reach three feet to the right, your chef knife is going to be there. All of it is kind of doing it for the first time, and if you’re not familiar with the Soulard Farmers’ Market, you don’t know where the good mushrooms are or the lady who sells the awesome local handmade chorizo. Obviously all of these participants are talented chefs and if they had everything at their disposal, it wouldn’t be so hard. Part of the wrench in the works is not knowing; it’s part of the X factor.

Photo courtesy of Mardi Gras Inc.

Photo courtesy of Mardi Gras Inc.

ALIVE: What criteria do the dishes need to meet for the judges?
TS: There’s a judging scale. It’s out of 45 points total: 15 go to taste, 10 to originality, 10 to presentation, 10 to degree of difficulty. Each chef will present to three judges at the same time and will be marked on those categories.

ALIVE: How do you think the participants will react to the mystery ingredient?
TS: I think it’s going to be difficult to be honest. I think there will be some groans when we announce it. It’s not over the top, but it’s a little tricky.

ALIVE: How involved does this ingredient have to be with the dish?
TS: The judges have the ability to judge that as they like. It doesn’t have to be the center of the plate so to speak. I think if it’s some ancillary part of the dish that’s not really incorporated, that will knock them down on the degree of difficulty.

ALIVE: Is there a particular chef you’re looking forward to watching compete?
TS: I can’t really talk about it. Mike Johnson and I have wagers on who’s going to win. I don’t want to tip my hand. You know, it’s Mardi Gras, we’ve got to have fun. Obviously we both wanted to compete—the prize is $1,500—but since we knew the mystery ingredient we couldn’t compete or have any of our people compete. It’s a pretty cool deal.

ALIVE: Any favorite dishes you like to enjoy or make at Mardi Gras?
TS: Obviously jambalaya is pretty high on my list. Sausage and charcuterie and things like that are the cornerstone for what Franco does as a restaurant. I always dig on that I suppose.

While waiting to find out who will reign the champion of the cook-off, audience members will enjoy an open bar of Bud Light, Southern Comfort Hurricanes alongside a complimentary lunch of Tony Chachere’s po’ boy and jambalaya. Live music will be provided by the Johnny Henry Band. Tickets are $35 in advance and $45 at the door. Be sure to check out all the events Mardi Gras has to offer in St. Louis this year.

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