As Local As It Gets

Photography By Alfredo Añez | October 17, 2016
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Winning student entry (Photo: Thi Squire)

Every October, Bee Heaven Farm's Margie Pikarsky hosts GrowFest! at Fruit and Spice Park in the Redland. It's a celebration of the kickoff of the South Florida growing season, where you can pick up seedlings and seeds, artisan products, food and information. GrowFest! is also fiercely local. Pikarsky insists on this, showcasing cottage food vendors, homegrown artisan products and plants from South Florida farmers.

And for the chef's cook-off – a competition similar to "Chopped" where chefs create a dish using ingredients in a mystery box of strictly local produce – the challenge is especially great. This time of year, it doesn't seem like much is growing here other than warm-weather crops like okra, avocado and tropical Malabar spinach. Could they put together a dish to impress the judges?

Here's how it went down this past weekend:

First, the Rules

Chefs were asked to create one dish that incorporates at least five ingredients found in the mystery market box. One of those had to be a honey product: local wildflower honey and bee pollen from G's Dream Farm.

The pantry, available to all, included local jackfruit and leaves from the Dinner Plate Tree (Pterospermum acerifolium) from Possum Trot, fresh hot peppers grown by Cool Runnings for Bee Heaven Farm, lemongrass from Verde Farm, allspice leaves from Green Groves and taro leaves from Green Groves/Bee Heaven Farm. The only non-local ingredients allowed were olive oil and coconut oil, canned coconut milk, flour (wheat and rice) and balsamic vinegar. Chefs could bring one secret ingredient.

The event was held outdoors and there was no electricity, so portable gas stoves were the only source of heat. And South Florida's typical October weather – sudden sprinkles amid the sunshine plus outdoor heat – contributed to the challenging conditions.

Photo 1: Pantry items available to all contestants
Photo 2: Farmer Margie explains ingredients in the mystery box

Meet the Contestants

Chef Venoy Rogers III of Slow Food Miami Chef's Alliance, who has lived in South Florida for a year and a half. Secret ingredient: Fresh duck eggs from Sun Fresh Farms

Chef Johnson Teh of Lan Pan Asian at Dadeland Station, Yuga in Coral Gables and Burrito San in downtown Miami. Secret ingredient: Miso

Chef Loren Pulitzer, co-founder/head chef of FEAST Miami, and a personal chef in Miami. Secret ingredient: Ume plum vinegar

Chef Carolina Molea of The Whisk Cafe and Bakery in Miami, opening in 2017. Secret ingredient: Rice

Photo 1: Venoy Rogers III
Photo 2: Johnson Teh
Photo 3: Loren Pulitzer of Simply Sharon's
Photo 4: Carolina Molea of The Whisk Bakery and Cafe

What's Inside the Box?

Contestants were not allowed to peek inside their ingredient boxes until they were given the go-ahead. Each box was filled with items from South Florida farms:

• Black-eyed peas, grown at Homestead Hospital's Grow2HEAL Garden
• Okra from Dunagan & Son
• Persian limes from Homestead Organic Farms
• Yuca, nopalitos and rosemary from Verde Farm
• Ginger from LNB Groves
• Avocado 'Booth 8' and betel leaf from Possum Trot
• Starfruit (carambola), Malabar spinach and baby greens from Paradise Farms
• Baby sunflower greens from Health and Happiness Farms
• Eggs from Abigail Farm
• Moroccan-style Spicy Citrus Pickle from Steve's Kitchen at Green Groves
• Garlic chives, hoja santa, basil, Cuban oregano, allspice leaves, curry leaf, sun-dried tomatoes, Earth and Sea buttonwood smoked sea salt from Bee Heaven Farm

Photo 1: Pulitzer, Molea and Stribling
Photo 2: The box is opened

Meet the Judges

Christine Najac of South Florida Food and Wine, a popular blog, author of the Food Lover's Guide to Miami and Fort Lauderdale and social media influencer on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram  

Eleanor Hoh of Wok Star, a cooking teacher, blogger and presenter, known for her unique classes, and also her popular social media platforms on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Gabriele Marewski of Paradise Farms, one of South Florida's pioneers in selling edible flowers, microgreens, tropical fruits and produce to top restaurants and creating farm-to-table dinners

Jim Stribling, director of Fruit and Spice Park in the Redland, home to more than 500 varieties of exotic fruits, herbs, spices and nuts from around the world and host to numerous festivals and events

Their mission: choose the dish that best showcased the local ingredients in the mystery box.

Najac, Hoh and Marewski sampling Venoy's dish

The Dishes

Chefs had one hour to prepare their dishes for the judges. While they worked, Stribling talked about Fruit and Spice Park's unique collection of fruit, nut and spice trees.

Photo 1: Chef Johnson's taro greens with avocado and beans with greens, drizzled with sweet miso sauce
Photo 2: Chef Loren's dressed greens with avocado and starfruit, atop a yuca-coconut mash
Photo 3: Chef Carolina's creamy rice pudding served with spicy starfruit

The Winner

After brief deliberations, the judges came to an agreement – a tie between chef Venoy's egg-topped hash and chef Loren's greens-topped mash. Both winners received a CSA share from Bee Heaven Farm, and all gained new insights into some of South Florida's unique seasonal offerings. Participants gathered for a parting shot. (Not pictured: cook-off organizer Soulful Vegan Ellen Kanner who was off shopping for plant starts)

Najac, Stribling, Hoh, Molea, Rogers, Pulitzer, Teh, Marewski and Pikarsky. Not pictured: author Ellen Kanner, part of the cook-off organizing team

Student's Challenge

On Saturday, Thi Squire, Homestead Hospital's GROW2Heal Community Garden project manager, led the Student's Local Cook-off Challenge. "The contestants have at least basic cooking skills but were given many ingredients that they had either never heard of or used," Squire says.


Photo 1: Squire explains the local ingredients
Photo 2: Black-eyed peas and rice topped with egg
Photo 3: Eggs with sun-dried tomatoes and okra

Brittany Lee and Marguerite Khouri, both from Miami Dade College, came up with multiple dishes: Shakshuka-inspired okra, black-eyed peas and rice topped with fried egg, and avocado pudding made with coconut milk and honey with carambola on top; eggs cooked with sun-dried tomatoes accompanied by okra cooked in olive oil with honey and ginger.

Winning Dish

Ana Hinez and Lazaro Mendiluche prepared a cool tropical black-eyed pea salad with carambola, avocado and sunflower greens drizzled with sun-dried tomatoes and balsamic vinaigrette, sweetened with local honey and sprinkled with bee pollen. The students also prepared coconut-ginger white rice infused with garlic chives, lemongrass and Persian lime juice. (See picture at top of page)

"I think that they all did an amazing job incorporating basket ingredients creatively. All contestants showed skill and creativity with their approach to combining the herbs and spices and showed great cultural diversity with the final dishes from Asian to Middle Eastern inspired. Best of all, a new combination was created by Brittany, who sautéed her okra with olive oil, ginger and honey. All the judges loved this new creation," says Squire.

GrowFest! is held every October at Fruit and Spice Park.

Article from Edible South Florida at
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