PORTSMOUTH — It’s going to be a chef showdown at The Music Hall when the Seacoast Culinary Challenge takes the stage March 31.
In the first-of-its-kind event, four renowned local chefs will compete against each other, creating a dish live using identical mystery bags of ingredients in the timed contest and hoping to win the judges’ favor, all with a live audience watching. The event is a benefit for the Wentworth-Douglass Hospital Foundation’s Annual Fund, and the rest of us are asking, “Why didn’t we think of that?”
The competing chefs will be David Vargas of Vida Cantina in Portsmouth, Julie Cutting of Cure in Portsmouth, David Crinieri, culinary director of Tuscan Brands, and Jay Curcio of The White Apron, a catering company based in Dover.
Hosting the inaugural cooking competition will be “Ciao Italia” TV cooking show host and cookbook author Mary Ann Esposito and Stages at One Washington owner and chef Evan Hennessey, who is no stranger to celebrity chef cooking competitions having appeared on the national Food Network show “Chopped” three times.
The chefs can bring only their personal set of knives to this fight. Everything else required to cook the dish will be set up at competition stations on the stage. At the beginning of the competition, they will receive identical bags of ingredients chosen by Esposito. There will be a pantry containing staples such as spices that they will share. Then the clock will start ticking and the cooking commences.
Each chef will plate six dishes of their creation for a panel of judges who will rate them on presentation, taste of dish, ease of preparation and creativity, which is described as the clever use of ingredients and pantry items. The chefs are being asked to make a healthy dish to tie in with the hospital’s mission advocating for a healthy lifestyle. The winner will be named live that night.
“The Seacoast Culinary Challenge will raise critical funds to support programs and projects across the hospital that enhance patient care and wellness, while also bringing together the restaurant and culinary community. So many restaurants have struggled throughout the pandemic, so this is an opportunity to promote their businesses and showcase their talent. It’s a win-win!” said Jackie Eastwood, chair of the Foundation’s Board of Directors, who is a friend of Esposito. Together the two came up with the idea of a chefs competition. Esposito’s husband Guy, now retired, was a surgeon at the hospital.
“I’m happy to be a part of this because my husband actually was a part of Wentworth-Douglass for over 30 years as an orthopedic surgeon, so now this is my chance to help the hospital,” Esposito said. “… It’s going to be wonderful. Everybody loves food and everybody loves to see somebody sweat under pressure.”
“As a local chef, it’s an honor to partner with Wentworth-Douglass in such a unique and fun way. As a three-time ‘Chopped’ champion, I know well the stress of competition and look forward to watching these chefs endure the same pressure.” Hennessey said.
Cristine More, the hospital’s Chief Philanthropy Officer and Vice President of Philanthropy, said the idea grew from a need for a fundraiser that a couple or several friends could do together. Citing the Foundation’s long-running golf tournament and the Seacoast Cancer 5K, she said, “We were looking for an event that was fun and social that couples could do, and friends could do together.”
More explained each year the hospital’s Foundation solicits ideas from employees for a project or program that needs support. That’s how the hospital’s Center for Weight Management and Bariatric Surgery became the beneficiary of the Seacoast Culinary Challenge. The money raised will fund a grant to underwrite the center’s patients’ out-of-pocket expenses not covered by insurance.
“Because they can’t afford to pay, some drop out of the program,” More said. “If they’re in this program, clearly there’s a physical need for it. … Folks with weight issues may develop secondary issues such as diabetes or heart conditions. We are partnering with the Center for Weight Management and Bariatric Surgery to bring in that whole note of a healthy diet so it’s a nice marriage.”
A red carpet will greet ticketholders as they approach The Music Hall and they’ll be interviewed and photographed like celebrities. “We’re trying to throw just a boatload of fun into this event,” said the hospital’s Manager of Philanthropy Emily Moore, who is organizing the logistics of essentially producing a live TV show.
Onstage inside The Music Hall, Moore said five cameras will project the competition action onto large screens so audience members can see the chefs at work from all angles and all their expressions up close much as you do when watching a cooking competition on your television.
“We’re really excited. I think there will be a lot of energy. Everybody loves a friendly competition. And these guys are all friends so it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch that night because not only is it going to be good culinary art, but it’s also going to be a good competition as well,” Moore said.
Esposito and Hennessey will be laying down the groundwork of the competition at the start of the show and then interacting with the chefs on stage as they cook. “They’ll be asking them why they’re choosing to cook an ingredient the way they are, why they’re adding that spice instead of that spice, and keeping the audience in tune with what they’re doing in a way that’s not too disruptive to the cooking competition,” Moore said. “Evan Hennessy is pretty much an expert at these competitions and is looking forward to being on the other side.”
And the chefs won’t be the only stars on stage. There’ll also be a DaVinci robot. Audience members will be given a live demo of the Da Vinci robotic surgical system, the technology used for minimally invasive bariatric (weight loss) surgery at Wentworth-Douglass. “Having the Da Vinci robotic system on stage is a fun way to demonstrate how amazing and precise the technology is,” stated Dr. Dmytro Havaleshko, one of the physicians who will demonstrating the robot’s capabilities.
The evening will also include a live auction and a dessert bar for audience members. A VIP Reception prior to the competition at 5:30 p.m. will include a meet and greet with the chefs and judges, food and wine paired by expert sommeliers, premiere seating in the theater, a special giveaway bag and an autographed cookbook from Mary Ann Esposito. General admission tickets to the Seacoast Culinary Challenge are $200; VIP tickets that include the VIP Reception are $300, and both are available at themusichall.org and at SeacoastCulinaryChallenge.org, where you can find more information and sponsorship opportunities.
Love reading about local restaurants? Sign up for our newsletter, Local Flavor, from Seacoastonline and Fosterscom to get stories like this one delivered straight to your inbox on Wednesdays at 11 a.m.
This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Seacoast Culinary Challenge to benefit Wentworth-Douglass Foundation