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Recently, a group of twelve local runners took on the challenge of participating in the Blue Ridge Relay. A grueling, two hundred plus mile relay spanning two days, mountainous terrain,…

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Virginia’s new Iron Chef draws inspiration from the farm

South Boston News
Molasses Grill chef Steven Schopen and sous chef Miles Perkins present their dishes to judges with the 2013 VSU Field Day Iron Chef Competition.
SoVaNow.com / July 01, 2013
Steven Schopen of Molasses Grill in Halifax is this year’s winner of the Iron Chef award presented by Virginia State University.

Schopen and sous chef Miles Perkins competed Thursday In Petersburg at VSU Field Day 2013, which promotes the use of fresh local ingredients for healthy living and good nutrition.

Schopen is the first local winner of the five-year-old competition. He and Perkins took home $500 from Colonial Farm Credit, one of the sponsors of the competition.

Schopen’s winning entry included a goat burger with goat cheese (using locally-raised goat), fried catfish over kale with gumbo, and smoked trout topped with cucumbers and melon.

“Farm to table is what we do every day in the restaurant,” said Schopen when asked about the competition. “As much as possible, we cook using only local ingredients.” By way of example, “The goat I cooked was raised on a nearby farm,” he said.

Schopen and four other entrants were judged on taste, presentation, and overall quality. The judges included Petersburg-area restaurateur Patricia Stansbury, Jeff Chapman, a chef and instructor at VSU, Megan Lawson, with event sponsor Colonial Farm Credit, Dr. Jewel Hairston, Dean of VSU School of Agriculture, and Nicolette Miller, wife of VSU President Keith T. Miller.

In addition to Schopen, competitors included chefs Harrison Keevil of Brookville Restaurant in Charlottesville, Edward Swann of Swann’s Grill in Surry, Jon Gordon of Timberwood Grill in Charlottesville, and Bill Erlenbach of Capital Ale House in Richmond.

Each year, VSU invites farmers — from commercial growers to hobbyists — to the school’s working farm, Randolph Farm, to see new crops, or new approaches to old crops, in an effort to help farmers stay economically viable. The Thursday field day also included the Iron Chef cooking competition, featuring local chefs using VSU-grown ingredients.

Scott Williamson, chef-owner of Henrico Farm, a Consumer Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation in Clarksville, emceed the Iron Chef Competition for the third year. He called the field day and competition “a wonderful program. The things we demonstrate here can be taken home and incorporated into people’s daily lifestyle.”

Before the start of the competition, guests had a chance to sample each entry. Then they watched as Williamson demonstrated how even home cooks can make fast, nutritious and good-tasting food, just like professional chefs. “In the time it takes you to drive to your local fast food restaurant, you can sauté an entire meal of good, fresh food. It’s not hard,” Williamson said.

The Randolph Farm portion of this year’s field day focused on square-foot gardening, which promotes ways for small farmers and gardeners to increase yields.

Henry and Joyce Ward of Lanexa, a husband-wife team and self-professed serious gardeners, spent the morning jotting notes. Ward said as good as the food is — it makes his mouth water and his stomach grumble, he interjected — “in all the years I have been to this event, I’ve never walked away without learning something new, something to help me improve my gardening skills. That’s really why I come to these events.”

Ward and his wife, who are looking to downsize their farm, agreed that they would much prefer to eat at restaurants that use fresh, local foods.

Unlike the Wards, Anna Johnson of Carolina County was hoping to find new ways to use 40-plus acres she inherited from her father and to earn money from the crops raised on the farm. Currently she leases the land to a local soybean farmer. But, after the tour of Randolph Farm, and listening to the chefs, she said, “Maybe an orchard is what I need; grow fruit for the local restaurants. Besides, fruit trees always make me think of my grandparents who grew the biggest apples and pears you ever saw.”

Listening to some of the comments, Williamson said he was pleased with the way the VSU program bridges the gap between local farmers and restaurants: “There’s often a great disconnect between the farmers who grow food and local chefs who want to cook it. If farmers know what we [chefs] are doing, they’ll better be able to market their goods,” he said.

The dynamic works both ways, he added: “I know a lot of chefs are looking for places where they can purchase good quality fresh food, even if it’s not from a commercial grower. They’ll tell you, ‘I like to know where my stuff comes from, so I’ll buy local.’”

This year’s VSU Field Day drew the largest audience in its nearly 30-year history. More than 550 people from central and Southside Virginia spent the day at VSU, which offers programs and educational opportunities in 25 Virginia counties.

The selected counties, which include Mecklenburg and Halifax, have the highest concentrations of limited-resource and socially disadvantaged farmers in the state.



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