Iron Fork 2012: Chef Laura Wilson Repeats as Champ in Humongous Fungus Showdown

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  • Photo: Eric England
  • Chef Laura Wilson and her team cooking furiously in the floor-level kitchen area

If it is possible to have a food hangover, that is definitely what I’m experiencing this morning. Mr. Eats and I celebrated our anniversary last night at Iron Fork. It may seem odd, but it’s such a fun event that it makes perfect sense for us. We do love food. Lots of food. Plus, the proceeds from the event benefit Second Harvest Food Bank, a wonderful and worthy organization. This year, the event was held at Marathon Music Works, which I think is now my favorite of all the venues. It was much easier to see the chefs at work, and there was a good amount of room to get to the vendors’ tables.

And two very large and well-staffed bars, which is, of course, very important.

When we got in, I employed my tried-and-true strategy of heading straight for the back. I went right for the butternut squash ravioli from Mirko, but that meant missing out on the wild mushroom ravioli from Porta Via (which must have been good; some 500 portions were gone within an hour!). After that, I cruised around the back, eyeing each table and skipping right past most of them due to the vast number of tags that included the word “bacon.” (I'm a vegetarian.)

That’s when I employed my next strategy: Get dessert first. While everyone else was waiting on their bacon-wrapped stuffed bacon, I headed to the Jeni’s cart to make sure I got a scoop of the goat cheese and cognac fig ice cream (which is only available through the end of the month). With that taken care of, I could sample the other restaurants at my leisure.

I was disappointed that some of last year’s favorites weren’t there (*cough* Rumba, Cupcake Collection), but there were some new vendors. Mr. Eats and our omnivore friends noted that Stonehouse Q had some fantastic barbecue. (Side note: With 24 hours notice, they will prepare their beans and greens for veg*ns.) My favorite item of the night, though was the quinoa-stuffed mushroom with pea pesto from Wild Iris. I popped one in my mouth and immediately turned around to get two more. There was also a lot of chatter about what the guys at The Southern call “red grits,” which is actually a sweet raspberry dessert with a tapioca cream. That unassuming little cup was surprisingly good.

The Southwest Steak Sliders from Mere Bulles and Cabana’s grits fritters with bacon both got several thumbs up. And another surprise (at least to me) was a the build-your-own banh mi bar from Copper Kettle. (!!!) Also of note: very refreshing beers from Shock Top; I enjoyed the Lemon Shandy and Mr. Eats raved about the Belgian White. (I swear this is a food hangover, though.) Many thanks to my fellow food bloggers, Amanda, Leah and Lannae for letting me know where the good vegetarian items were (as well as their favorite nonvegetarian samples).

Presentation to the judges

And then there was the competition! I have to say, I was very excited when I heard that the secret ingredient was a trio of mushrooms: crimini, shiitake and oyster. It just so happens that one of the best meals I’ve ever had was a creamy polenta topped with an assortment of mushrooms at The Silly Goose, the restaurant of Roderick Bailey, one of the competitors! So I was very eager to see what Roderick and the others were going to make.

Here’s the rundown of each chef's plate:

Jason Brumm, Merchants: poached filet; fresh ricotta and wild mushroom ravioli with mushroom red wine syrup; seared Gulf shrimp with wild mushroom pesto; bacon poached potato salad.

Roderick Bailey, The Silly Goose: chili-rubbed rack of lamb with curried sweet potato puree; grilled mushroom gremolata; tamarind sauteed mushrooms; apple-mint salad; cilantro chimichurri.

Vinny Tardo, Saffire: fennel-crusted beef loin over mushroom polenta with mushroom mousse; arugula-herb salad and sauteed mushrooms with mushroom vinaigrette; tomato-saffron coulis.

Laura Wilson, Nashville Farmers' Market (returning Iron Fork champion): Olive & Sinclair bourbon nib brittle crepe with mushroom duxelle; asparagus broth crab and mushroom beignets with mushroom sabayon.

Michael Kidd, Bound’ry: fennel seed pork tenderloin; mushroom bacon duxelle; sweet potato-asparagus fricassee; ghost-chili shrimp, pickled mushrooms in Pedro Ximinez vinegar; yellow pepper-passion fruit coulis; mushroom sherry gastrique; bacon-wrapped saba-soaked fig.

As you can imagine, the competition was tight. But Wilson came out just ahead to win the competition again. Congratulations to Laura! It would have been tough for me to choose a winner, but I do have to say that that crepe sounds amazing. I wonder if she’ll make it again sometime when I can get my hands on one.

(I opted out of the silent auction — a new twist this year — for a plate of my own when it was becoming clear I couldn’t stay in the race. One woman camped out by the auction sheet, ready to outbid anyone who came near.)

And I’m putting saba (aka mosto cotto) on my to-do list.

Also on the to-do list: next year! I hope Laura will be able to return to defend her Fork — she’s the only chef to win twice, and I wonder if she’ll make it three in a row!

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