Uncle's Hawaiian Grindz chefs Travis Szerensits and Zack Trabbold won the inaugural chef's challenge at the Harford County Farm Fair Tuesday, an event that's one of a number of new attractions to celebrate the fair's 30th year.
"I think it's wonderful that they're trying something different with the farm fair this year," Christina Tompkins, a spectator from Fallston, said during the competition.
She visited the fair with her 8-year-old son, Nicholas. Tompkins, who grew up in Bel Air and came to the fair when she was in high school, said she was glad organizers are working to "generate some new interest" in Harford County attractions.
Aimee O'Neill, co-chair of the fair board, called the challenge a "ground-breaking event," a way to educate people about cooking meals with locally-sourced ingredients.
Szerensits, Uncle's executive chef, and Trabbold, the executive sous chef, competed against Fallston Barrel House executive chef Adam Heath, sous chef Brian Hancocks and assistant chef Jessica Numbers.
The competition resembled a timed cooking challenge show on the Food Network. Each team had a certain amount of time to prepare an appetizer,entree and dessert from mystery ingredients that were donated by local farms.
Tommie Koukoulis, the owner of Uncle's, was the master of ceremonies. He talked with the chefs as they cooked, members of the audience and the judges.
The chefs worked with beef tongue and pasture-raised eggs donated by Grand View Farm in Forest Hill, pork bellies from Deer Meadow Farm in Aberdeen, plus they could mix fruits and vegetables from Harman's Farm Market in Churchville, beer from Independent Brewing Co. in Bel Air and fresh herbs that had been grown for exhibition at the fair.
Their ingredients for dessert were cheese from Keyes Creamery in Aberdeen and ice cream from Broom's Bloom Dairy in Bel Air, plus the produce from Harman's.
"When you have beautiful, fresh, local ingredients like this, let the ingredients shine, and it looks like both chefs are doing that right now," Koukoulis said.
The dishes were presented to a panel of seven judges, and members of the audience could sample the dishes as well.
"He's my adventurous eater," Tompkins said of her son. "He'll try anything, eat anything."
Thomas said his favorite food was the early-season watermelon with bright yellow flesh "with the spice in it," referring to the Hawaiian spices sprinkled on the melon at the Uncle's station.
Nick Bailey, who owns Grand View Farm with his father, Wil, talked about how the beef cattle at his family's farm are grass fed and rotated to different parts of the farm to graze, allowing the grass to recover.
Bailey described the practice as "holistic," noting the cattle are moved around with other farm animals.
"We have multiple animals working together to heal the land, essentially," he said.
The judges praised the dishes made by both teams, and the final results were close — Uncle's beat Fallston Barrel House 429-409.
"These guys did a fantastic job showing us what they can do," Koukoulis said.
Spectators were invited to grab any leftover produce at the end of the challenge. Shannon Baumgart, of Forest Hill, returned to her seat with her arms filled with produce such as cucumbers and tomatoes.
She watched the competition with her husband, Dustin.
"I love cooking, and I love watching 'Chopped' on the Food Network, so when I heard they were doing a cooking challenge I was intrigued," Baumgart said. "It exceeded any expectations that I could have."
The judges were Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler; Janet Archer, president of the Harford County Farm Bureau; Paul Lawder, director of the county's Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits; Michael Mason, of the county executive's office; county Treasurer Robert Sandlass; Amy McClaskey, co-chair of the fair board, and Judy Bradford Button, of PNC Bank.
County Councilman Chad Shrodes substituted for Button part way through the competition.
He later said the challenge was "a great idea."
Uncle's Hawaiian Grindz uses ingredients that are sourced within a 100-mile radius of the Fallston restaurant, whenever possible, Trabbold said.
"Farm-to-table is not a fad," Szerensits said. "It's here to stay."
Around the fairgrounds
People out and about on the fairgrounds at the Harford County Equestrian Center in Bel Air also expressed their appreciation for changes made to the fair this year, such as extending it from four to six days and bringing in more rides.
Visiting the fair is an annual tradition for Gail Duncan, of Street, and her mother, Ellie Bittner, also of Street.
"It's different this year, a lot more rides than I remember," said Duncan, who noted she and her mother don't usually ride the rides.
"We like visiting all the vendors, seeing what they have to offer," Bittner said.
The pair had yardsticks they received from a vendor, plus American flags from another vendor. They walked the fairgrounds with the flags attached to the yardsticks which were in their shoulder bags.
Bittner said she and her daughter are "always" patriotic.
"I like how it's longer," Toby Hedges, 18, of Abingdon, said of the fair. "People who go on vacation during the weekend can come during the week."
He visited with his friend, Lynn Schumacher, 18, of Fallston, and his aunt and cousin, Sandra and Evan Waltemire, of Spring Grove, Pa.
"My cousin is showing pigs!" Evan, age 7, said with excitement.
His mother asked him what animal he would show, if he could; he replied that he would show goats.
The Muddy Creek Vaulters, a returning fair attraction, impressed visitors as girls and young women ages 11 to 25 performed dance and gymnastics moves on the backs of two moving horses in the show ring.
Ten members of the Airville, Pa.-based group performed three shows Tuesday.
Trisha Bowman, the head coach, said spectators "seem to really be enjoying" the show.
"Vaulting's a unique sport," she said. "You don't see it around very often."
Bowman said the Muddy Creek Vaulters have performed at the Harford fair for the past few years.
"I like the people," she said. "It's always a fun audience to perform for, because they always seem to enjoy what we do."
4-Hers aging out
People crowded under a show pavilion to watch youth members of 4-H and the Future Farmers of America show the pigs they raised.
"I think all of you are excellent showmen, and you all deserve to be in this ring," Brittany Lippy, the show's chief judge, told the competitors.
This year is the final year 4-H member Katie Poteet, 18, of Jarrettsville, will be able to show animals through the program, as she is aging out of it.
"I'm really upset about it," she said.
Poteet has been in 4-H for 11 years, and she has shown pigs for 10 years. She said she has learned "a lot of responsibility" through raising animals, and she has become close friends with fellow 4-Hers.
"It's really good way to know where your food is coming from, and to be able to educate the public about what it's really like raising the animals and to know that they're coming from a good home," she said of showing animals.
Poteet lives on Chrome Valley Farm, and she has also shown cows in prior years.
She said it is "really exciting" to watch the younger 4-Hers in the show ring. She recalled a senior member who helped her when she was young, and she has helped some of the young 4-Hers this year.
"It's really special to pass it on," she said.
Lisa Maxwell, of Four Elms Acres farm in Hickory, noted several members of 4-H are aging out this year, including her daughter, Anne, who is going into her sophomore year in college.
"Everybody's growing up so fast," she said.
Her son, Ned, who is going into his senior year at North Harford High School, has two more years.
"They've learned so much and gotten so much out of 4-H," Maxwell said, noting her children plan to pursue their "passion," a career in animal science.