by Mike Corrigan

February, my friend, is Heart Month; so decree the fine people over at the Heart Institute of Spokane. So put down that Hungry Man dinner -- Frozen Food Month isn't until March -- and listen up, because Cupid isn't the only one who has his sights on your ticker this month.

Heart Institute representatives are teaming up with their community partners (Group Health, Holy Family Hospital, Sacred Heart and Kootenai Medical centers and the Rockwood Clinic) to spread the good word about heart-healthy diets. The 2004 edition of the Institute's Food Plan, a 32-page booklet filled with Mediterranean diet-influenced, heart-healthy recipes from top local chefs, is already out there and available at area Tidyman's stores.

But the month's main attraction is the Battle of the Chefs cooking competition at the Big Easy Concert House this Saturday afternoon. And if the sights, sounds and smells of eight of the region's best chefs going into combat against one another sounds tasty to you, you should plan on attending.

The competitive cook-off will be hosted by Heart Institute nutritionist Patty Seebeck and KXLY's Rick and Teresa Lukens and will be at least partially patterned after the wildly popular The Iron Chef, a militaristic cooking competition program produced in Japan and translated for American cable TV audiences by the Food Network. On The Iron Chef, world-renowned chefs challenge one of the show's three culinary masters (the Iron Chefs) to a live, timed cook-off using a main ingredient that is revealed by the show's master of ceremonies (the "Chairman") just before the competition begins. When the final bell sounds, the dishes of the competing chefs are judged by a three-person panel. After the points are tallied -- and the tension is allowed to reach a fever pitch -- the Chairman announces the glorious winner, the chef whose "cuisine reigns supreme."

"The Battle of the Chefs will be up on the stage at the Big Easy," says the institute's community education coordinator, Jerrie Heyamoto, "and we'll have four chefs competing at a time. The winner of the two rounds will battle each other for the 'Culinary Wizard' award. The lighting and the sound system is so cool, and they have those big screens on either side of the stage. So we can actually make it a lot like the TV show."

The chefs competing this year are Adam Hegsted (Cedars Floating Restaurant), Curtis Smith (Coeur d'Alene Resort), Dani Briceno (Davenport Hotel), Brett Fontana (Hayden Lake Country Club), Christopher Copenhaver (Inland Northwest Culinary Academy and Shooters), Frank Ciccone (Inland Northwest Culinary Academy and Cedars), James Malone (Solstice) and Dave Hill (Hill's Someplace Else). Two of the chefs in this year's battle -- Briceno and Hill -- are returning from last year's competition (then referred to as the "Grand Slam Cookoff").

Heyamoto explains the rules of the game: "They'll all have a pantry behind them that they can pull from. But they're only allowed to bring a little chef's toolbox with their knives and stuff that they're comfortable with. The mystery box will have three ingredients inside, and it will be the same for each chef. And then they have 20 minutes to create something out of that -- all on stage with all the pressure of the lights and the audience watching. They have five minutes to plate the entr & eacute;e and serve it to the judges."

The Battle will be judged by a six-person panel made up of fellow chefs Howard Bateman of the Globe Bar & amp; Grille (last year's winner, by the way), Ray Delfino of the Spokane Club, Doug Fisher of the Inland Northwest Culinary Academy, Carla Graves of Paprika and a couple of just regular folks: Kevin Finch, associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church, and accountant Monica Romano.

How hardcore is it? Not so much, claims Solstice co-owner and head chef James Malone, one of the competitors.

"It's just fun to get together with definitely some of the most talented chefs in this town," he says. "People like Dave Hill. I mean, I've been eating his pasta for years and loving it. It's gonna be a great venue to not only show off our skills but where we work and what we're doing."

For spectators, there will be free food samples from Lite and Hearty restaurants and a no-host wine and beverage bar. It's also a chance to check out the new venue without loud music -- or smoking, as the event is smoke-free.

"It's a fun way for people who like food to learn," says Heyamoto. "The chefs will be talking about cooking techniques and heart-healthy recipes. So it's educational as well as entertaining."

Publication date: 02/19/04

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