Bettendorf Chef Wins Contest that Kicks Off Pork Congress

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A lesser-known cut of pork challenged competing chefs during the 36th annual Taste event, hosted by the Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA). Taste kicked off the week of Iowa Pork Congress, which runs through Thursday, Jan. 26 in Des Moines. 

Chef Nicolas Lopez, with Isle Casino Hotel Bettendorf, took first place—or Chef Par Excellence—at the Taste competition. This year’s contest asked chefs to prepare an entrée featuring pork blade steak, or sliced Boston pork butt, with the cut taken from above the shoulder blade and popular for making pulled pork.

For the contest, Lopez prepared marinated al pastor pork shoulder steak with elote (grilled Mexican street corn) and black bean salad, and garnished with pico de gallo “for spice” and a cilantro-lime dressing “for freshness.”

Lopez received $1,000 and a plaque for preparing the top entrée in a field of eight chefs.

The judges selected Kelly Bunkers, with Main + Abbey in Sioux City, for second place, or Superior Chef. Bunkers offered grilled lemongrass shio koji pork blade steak, apple mustard pork jus, pork fat confit creamer, and potato cakes. (Shio koji is a Japanese condiment used for seasoning or marinating.) He received a plaque and $500.

Third place—Premier Chef—went to Jesus Ojeda with Clive Behavioral Health in Clive. He served braised pork blade steak with chorizo mashed potatoes, sauteed portabella mushroom and asparagus. The plate was garnished with rosemary sprigs. He took home a plaque and $250.

Josh McCurnin, of Destination Grille in Grimes, was designated Media’s Choice by selected media professionals. He also was voted People’s Choice by those who attended a tasting reception. McCurnin made Hawaiian pork blade steak with mustard caviar, and dehydrated greens and grits. He won a plaque for each award and a total of $500.

Compared to years past, Kelsey Sutter, IPPA’s marketing and programs director, noted an “overwhelming amount” of applications for the limited number of competition spots. “It’s great to see chefs eager to compete and connect,” she says. “That interest shows that our competition is still relevant and still fills a need for Iowa chefs to express their creativity, especially when working with our product.”

Taste is a Pork Checkoff-funded culinary competition designed to inspire innovative and exciting ways to menu pork in restaurants. The event brings together talented chefs from across the state, and IPPA provided each with a $200 stipend to offset the cost of the pork.