The last thing I imagined I would be doing on a football-packed Sunday in October was helping judge a lamb cooking contest. And yet there I was, at the 2nd annual Lamb Jam Seattle at Bell Harbor International Conference Center last Sunday, sitting with eight experienced judges in a secluded room about to be teeming with wonderful wine and tantalizing lamb dishes.
And let me just tell you – this wasn’t your Grandma’s dry leg of lamb with mint jelly, served up on an old white platter to the family on Easter Sunday! For many that aren’t familiar with the variety and complexity of American lamb, this is often the mental image that comes to mind – or maybe that was just for me!. But that was not to be on this Sunday, not with this competition featuring 21 outstanding local chefs about to perform their magic on four basic cuts of American lamb.
Our task as judges – and we did enter willingly! – was to taste all 21 lamb dishes, along with 21 wines paired specifically for each dish. We had about 2.5 hours to sample, savor and score each dish, as they came out rapid fire every 6 minutes from the kitchen. It was a tremendous experience, not only for my tastebuds, but for my brain, as I received quite an education about the wide range of ways to prepare a great lamb dish. Even with my background as a personal chef, I wasn’t entirely familiar with the various cuts of lamb and how various preparations would affect the final product. And that certainly is the point for these Lamb Jam events, also held in Boston, San Francisco and Washington DC with the final competition in New York.
The big winner of the event was Chef Mark Bodinet from Copperleaf Restaurant at Cedarbrook Lodge, with a grilled shoulder confit delicately served atop creamy, slightly sweet, creamed parsnips and garnished with perfectly sweet preserved huckleberries. Bodinet, who spent 5 years at world-renownded French Laundry in Napa Valley before arriving in Seattle, not only won Best Shoulder dish, but Best in Show (overall dish) and Best Food & Wine Pairing (Buty).
Nipping at Bodinet’s heels was Chef Bobby Moore of Barking Frog in Woodville, who not only captured the Best Loin dish but the “People’s Choice” award, with an impressive double presentation of lamb loin. Moore served up an adorable (it really was!) mini pot pie filled with succulent sous vide loin and chanterelle mushrooms, along with a side presentation of lam carpaccio with truffle oil. That sure ain’t Grandma’s Easter dinner!
Other winners were Chef Gavin Stephenson of The Georgian Room, who captured the Leg category with a smartly presented kebab, crusted with a peppered lovage (think celery to the 10th power) crust and served with a tomato basil crostini. And taking honors in the Shank competition was Chef Angie Roberts of BOKA with an extremely popular and delicious sloppy joe slider. The perfectly mixture of moroccan spices, pine nuts, corn and golden raisins had a magical tang and was paired with an amazing brioche bun that was expertly toasted. It was hard to only eat one of the little lovelies, but since it was one of the first dishes served to the judges, we had to pace ourselves for the many dishes to come. And I must note, it took nearly 24 hours after the event before I even came close to being hungry again!
A couple other dishes made big impressions and were noteworthy in our minds as well – The Salish Lodge’s sous vide, espresso-crusted loin served with lamb jam (how appropriate!) and autumn squash, and garnished with the most scrumptious, artistic cracker; Andaluca‘s crispy, tender and perfectly seasoned (Moroccan!) braised shoulder phyllo pastilla (again, I could have eaten multiple of these!); and Cantinetta‘s striking lamb shank with ricotta gnudi, sitting like the perfect little stew atop a pile of fluffy pillows!
Overall, I heard nothing but rave reviews for the food, wine and overall experience by the 600 attendees, who got a heck of a deal ($45) for a lamb feast worthy of a king! Lamb Jam is funded and promoted by the American Lamb Board which is supported by lamb producers across the nation. I had also heard about the magic of a Jamie Peha-produced event , Jamie assists the American Lamb Board with its Northwest and National Lamb Jam programs and it was impressive to witness the action with a team that perfectly executes every aspect behind the scenes and puts on a first-class event for everyone. I am a convert and look forward to many more of wine-food pairing festivities put on by these folks!