by Anneli Rufus
Just got back from the tenth annual Crabby Chefs Seafood Festival, where I was one of the judges ranking the creations of nine different cooking teams from nine different Bay Area restaurants, catering companies, and cooking schools.
Rain soaked the Spenger's parking lot where the event was taking place, but spectators gathered and the cooking teams gamely arranged their outdoor assemblages nonetheless. Moments before the competition was set to begin, the rain stopped and never returned.
At a signal, each team had twenty minutes to prepare a complete dish whose ingredients included crab and a secret ingredient, which was revealed seconds before the competition began. This year's secret ingredient was kiwifruit.
And this year's competitors included Caffe Venezia, Berkeley's Kitchen, Green Lantern Catering, the Contra Costa College Culinary Arts Department, Treasure Island Job Corps Culinary School, McCormick & Kuleto's, Chef James Koskiniemi, the Hungry Hunter, and Lake Chalet. All of them created award-worthy dishes: Among others, Berkeley's Kitchen prepared crab Benedict, served atop pancakes with bacon, macadamia nuts, and kiwifruit purée; Green Lantern offered crab-salad quenelles framed by tiny stars made of cut-up kiwifruit; Caffe Venezia prepared crab salad with scrumptious cherrywood-smoked leeks. Dishes from each cooking team were also auctioned off, with the proceeds destined for the Cal Recreational Sports Developmental Fund's Camp Scholarship Program.
Third place went to Green Lantern, second (for the second year running) to Contra Costa College (for beautifully presented crab balls rakishly poised above shotglasses of sauce), and first to James Koskiniemi, whose entry — a crab croquette with creamy kiwifruit foam — was the smallest and simplest-looking, but astoundingly flavorful. He won his first cooking competition at age six, then later interned at Chez Panisse, graduated from the California Culinary Academy, and worked as the executive chef at Oakland's Bellevue Club.
"It's all about the ingredients. It's not about the size," he told me and fellow judges Christina Mitchell (of EastBayDish.com), Renee Macalino Rutledge of HelloMetro.com and other venues, and John Aronovici of the Berkeley Historical Society after claiming his trophy.