Inside the newly renovated Orpheum last Saturday night, the 7th annual Artisan Cup & Fork returned to hosting the event entirely in-person. More than 250 event guests enjoyed a taste of what the talented chef and baker teams had to offer for the culinary competition fundraiser.
When my date and I arrived, we received our envelopes with seven differently colored squares plus three drink tickets, a program, and we were on our way into the Orpheum theater.
The event had a bottle toss with over 50 bottles of beer, wine, olive oil, vinegar, spirits, and more plus a silent auction featuring goods from Sola Gratia Farm, candles, art, and more.
The Orpheum’s sloped floor had a large stage which leveled the majority of the flooring and had long rows of tables Hogwarts-style. I sat at a table on the side, off the stage where it was sloped, but it was not uncomfortable.
This year’s Artisan Cup & Fork event was full, and I mean, full.
The buzz of hundreds of people eating, drinking, and debating the best dish filled the Orpheum. With five teams this year (one more than last year’s competition), there were five savory dishes to try. Guests could try the food in any order which allowed the lines to balance, but some chef teams maintained shorter lines all night as they were quicker to plate than other teams.
Pork Belly Kimchi Ramen | Weird Meat Boyz
Chef Team 1 was Weird Meat Boyz, the reigning champs from last year’s Artisan Cup & Fork, and they presented mini bowls of pork belly kimchi ramen. For the tonkatsu broth ramen, Chefs Ian Nutting and Doug Hodge made ramen noodles from scratch with grain from Janie’s Mill in addition to a quick kimchi of Humbleweed Farm Chamoe and cucumbers. The soft-boiled eggs were from Joyful Wren Farm, a sister-owned farm in Champaign. For the meat eaters, Sunset Acres pork belly was marinated in Prairie Fruits Farm yogurt and beer. The vegetarian dish had yogurt and beer braised Lion’s Mane mushrooms in lieu of pork belly.
The expertise to make hundreds of soft boiled eggs all perfectly jammy was impressive, and the gooey yolk was just delish. The kimchi, pork belly, egg, and noodles all gave different textures to the dish. The kimchi had a nice crunch and an even better heat that lingered a little. The pork belly was wonderfully smoky and tender. The ambition of these self-taught chefs to make their own ramen noodles and prepare hundreds of soft boiled eggs made for a competitive bite.
Roasted Pork Belly with Pumpkin Chutney + Herbed Kefir Sauce | Homegrown
Chef Team 2 was Homegrown, the new restaurant at the U of I Atkins Golf Club. Chefs Ryan Rogiers, Cody Butler, and Joel Burden made roasted pork belly with a pumpkin chutney, halved tomatoes, sliced peppers, and a drizzle of herbed kefir sauce. The Destiny Meats pork belly was easily the star of the dish. The Homegrown team chefs used the pork two ways: as the dish’s main component and the garnish. The pork cracklin’ garnish was made from the skin of pork belly cut into strips, put it in a grinder, popped like popcorn in sunflower oil, and seasoned with a seven pepper blend. I loved that even the skin was not wasted but utilized to elevate the dish.
The sweetness of the pumpkin chutney went well with the savory flavors of the pork belly. The pork was so tender — especially the decadent fatty ribbon — that it practically melted in my mouth. The airy pork rind complemented the veggie crunch of the Cook Farm lunchbox peppers and juicy pop of the tomatoes, but I wished there was more of the Little Brown Cow Dairy keifer sauce. This dish highlighted how well a fall flavor like pumpkin could go with the last of summer’s tomatoes, especially when pork belly and from-scratch cracklin’ are included.
Pork Tenderloin Roulade with Vegetables + Polenta | VFW Post 630
Chef Team 3 was VFW Post 630 with Chefs Kartrina Downs and Zachary Bronson. The chefs made a pork tenderloin roulade with crispy vegetables and a creamy polenta. The plating was done precisely, and I thought the microgreens made the dish look pretty. The polenta was absolutely delicious, and the rustic slices of Meyer Produce zucchini had a golden char. The sweet drizzle of raspberry gastrique had a little fruity zip that went great with the pork, and the portion of pork from Moore Family Farm was quite filling for a tapas-style dish.
The caramelized onions from Cook Farm, mushrooms from Flyaway Farm, and the cave-aged heritage cheese from Marcoot Jersey Creamery in the pork roulade had good flavors. The vegetarian option had a mushroom roulade with the same accouterments: roasted squash, creamy polenta, red raspberry gastrique, and microgreens.
Chef Jordan Baldarotta made a sparerib Osso Bucco with a tomato and mushroom ragu with a side of braised greens plus a butternut squash and Tomme polenta topped with a rosemary olive oil. Chef Baldarotta shaved Alpine cheese atop each sparerib Osso Bucco.
Of all the AC&F dishes, this was one was served the most hot in temperature, and my tablemate suggested the reason: Baldarotta’s began as a catering company, so they have experience cooking food for large events. The bone-in meat was insanely delicious and fell off the bone easily. The robust Italian flavors in the rib were matched by the well seasoned cheesy polenta and the flavorful softened greens. The dark herby tomato sauce brought it all together for one epic Italian dish.
Chicken + Black Garlic Dumplings | Harmony Korean BBQ
Chef Team 5 was Harmony Korean BBQ led by Chef Blake Biggs, who was previously chef at Miga and sous chef at Bacaro. Chef Biggs made chicken and black garlic dumplings in a tomato and kimchi broth with estate vegetables from Epiphany Farms. The dumplings were made with grains from Funks Grove Heritage Fruits & Grains, and the black color of the gnocchi was instantly interesting. The soup had great tomato and fennel flavors with a little spiciness, and large pieces of poached chicken soaked up the kimchi broth. Chopped onions, cabbage, carrots, and broccoli added a dose of local produce.
The chicken and dumplings were served from a giant pot, so the dish had the fastest line of the night. My favorite part of this dish was the black garlic garnish that added a delicious salty, garlicky crunch. To make black garlic, regular garlic bulbs are aged, and Chef Biggs took three weeks to age Epiphany Farms garlic in rice cookers to achieve black garlic. Then the black garlic was cooked down with caramelized onions, pureed, added to a tempura batter, and fried until crispy. That much time spent on something as simple as a garnish showed Chef’s dedication to detail.
This year’s baking competition was a duel between Compassionate Crumbs and Heidi Leuszler.
Baker 1 was Compassionate Crumbs, a company that opened in 2019. Baker Michelle Schneider made aronia berry gooey crumb bars which were made from Fellowship Farms aronia berries. The gooey bar was cut into squares for event guests which made for simple serving. It was a big portion and a tasty sweet berry bite, and though I wasn’t that impressed with this particular dessert, I did like the tart flavor of the aronia berries and the crumble topping.
Baker 2 was Heidi Leuszler who prepared pear pockets. Phyllo pastry was filled with cheese from Ludwig Farmstead Creamery, herbs, and a handcrafted pear paste made from pears, Red Crib Acres apples, Fox Path Farm ginger, spicebush berries, and prickly ash follicles. The dessert was drizzled with honeycomb from Two Million Blooms in Champaign. I loved the crispiness of the pretty phyllo pocket and the sweet fruit filling.
The 7th Artisan Cup & Fork Winners
There were two categories to win the competition: one decided by a panel of three judges and one winner crowned by the audience.
For the Chef Team competition, the judges awarded first place to Homegrown, and the crowd also chose Homegrown as winner. Second place for people’s choice was Harmony Korean BBQ, and third place was Baldarotta’s.
For the Baker Team competition, the judges chose Heidi Leuszler as winner, and the people chose Compassionate Crumbs for first place.
It was a bold move to give guests three drinks in a slanted room, but guests took on the challenge. The line was long all night for cocktails, but other options had shorter lines. Beer was provided by two vendors. Artesia Brewing offered a vanilla cream ale called Thunderbird. The crisp lager-ale hybrid was brewed with domestic corn, vanilla beans, American steel, and Corinthian leather, and it was the most popular beer at my table. Riggs Beer Company served their American Lager brewed with Riggs-grown barley and white corn in addition to the Hefeweizen, a German-style beer brewed with Riggs wheat.
Cloud Mountain Kombucha offered event guests a selection of four kombucha flavors: the two award winning flavors lemon balm + ginger and the Autumn Mary plus the fall favorite Magic Pumpkin Ride and Yaupon.
The event was a fabulous display of what is so delicious about Champaign-Urbana: local chefs creating unique dishes with ingredients sourced by local farmers and producers. An event like this celebrates what it means to eat local, support local, and celebrate local. Meeting other guests and bonding over a plate of Osso Bucco and maple peach old fashioneds was a lot of fun, and it’s something I’ve certainly missed in these last three years.
The Artisan Cup & Fork is back to being entirely in-person, and the event is annual. Be sure to catch the 8th annual Artisan Cup & Fork next year.
Full List of the 2022 Producers:
Bloomington Spice Works
Flyway Family Farms
Fox Path Farm
Funks Grove Heritage Fruits & Grain
Joyful Wren Farm
Little Brown Cow Dairy
Marcoot Jersey Creamery
Moore Family Farm
Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery
Red Crib Acres
Sola Gratia Farm
Two Million Blooms