Dozens of eager food and farming lovers piled in Virginia State University’s (VSU) Gateway Dining Facility Thursday morning to see four top Virginia chefs cook it out for the school’s second annual Iron Chef competition.
As the event ran in conjunction with the 8th Annual Commercial Vegetable and Berry Field Day, which was part of VSU’s yearly series of open-house events teaching farmers to stay local and economical, the chefs used fresh and locally grown fruit, vegetables, meat and fish from VSU’s Randolph Farm to prepare a dish for five judges; one which was Matoaca district Supervisor Marlene Durfee.
“The event brings out to the public the hidden side of what we do, of VSU’s mission to do good things right here in our own community,” said Tom Reed, director of University Relations at VSU.
Early that morning members of the horticulture program guided community members through the expansive Randolph Farm, located only a couple miles from campus.
There, Dr. Reza Rafie, an extension specialist at VSU, shared the virtues of growing exotic fruits – figs, papaya, and guava – in Virginia as cash crops, educating farmers so they could better market their goods to stay local.
“I think the basic goal of this program is to really bring educational opportunities to our growers,” said Rafie. “They grow crops, they grow fruits, and they do a very good job, but after the product leaves their farm gate, they don’t know where it goes or what happened to the product … The best way to do that is to put them in contact with the chefs and to network and learn from each other because chefs are very much interested in understanding what’s going on with the farmers.”
Swarms of people then flocked to the newly constructed dining facility where the chefs impressed, entertained and even prepared cooked samples of the food grown at Randolph Farm.
Before long,t the Gateway Dining Facility became a showcase for the four Virginia chefs: Motavia Alston, an Army Staff Sergeant currently working at the Pentagon as the Head Executive Chef for the Secretary of Defense; Sebastian Carosi, co-founder of Café Indigo in Rappahannock County (Sperryville); Harrison Keevil, who owns and operates Brookville Restaurant in Charlottesville; and Todd Johnson, owner of Mezzanine and Belly Timber Tavern in Richmond.
At 12:30 that afternoon, chefs began bringing their dishes to the judges for their final taste evaluation. After devouring each dish in front of hundreds of people, they deemed Todd Johnson the winner, bestowing him a human-sized check for $500. Afterward, he said he’d use it to take a “much needed vacation.”
“People are doing great things,” he said. “I think education is always the way to go about educating America.”
Wearing a shirt that read “Support your local farmer,” Johnson commented on a question about his motivation in wearing the shirt, saying, “I feel that without the farming and the great people doing the farming, there’s no way I can open the restaurant that I have.”For additional information on VSU’s Cooperative Extension program, visit their website at www.vsu.edu