You know those television cooking shows where the chefs scramble to prepare judge-pleasing dishes using specified ingredients while the clock ticks down? The Mason Dixon Master Chef Tournament is like that, except with a live audience and an emcee who asks questions as the chefs work.
The event, now in its third year, started with 16 teams of chefs from the Baltimore and Washington region. The group from the Iron Bridge Wine Co., led by executive chef Christopher Lewis, is among the four that has made it to the semifinal round.
The Iron Bridge team will compete Monday, Aug. 19, against chefs from The Point in Fells. The winner of that match will, on Aug. 27, face the winner of a matchup between Pikesville's Gourmet Again and Baltimore's Bond Street Social.
Iron Bridge sous chefs Lee Marziale Jr. and Tyler Skinner round out the Columbia restaurant's team.
The competitors know in advance what ingredients they are required to use. Lewis and his teammates, already busy with day-to-day food preparation at Iron Bridge, plan the recipes in advance and try to run through the routine at least once, said Lewis, adding that they don't always find the time.
When planning the dishes, they think about what the judges will like, but also about the time and equipment constraints.
"It's amazing how quick an hour and a half is," Lewis said. "It's a lot of fun, but it's definitely a challenge and that's why we like to do it."
Karen Folkart and her brother-in-law Erik Folkart are the founders and organizers of the eight-week competition, which works by pitting two teams against each other, and allowing just the winner to advance. Professional chefs from throughout the Baltimore and Washington region are invited to compete, and each team consists of an executive chef, sous chef and chef's assistant.
The venue changes each year; this year the cook-offs are held at the Mari Luna Bistro, on Cathedral Street in Baltimore, in a kitchen set up in the middle of the restaurant. While the teams prepare an appetizer, entree and dessert, an emcee is asking questions and a live audience is watching. The food is judged on taste, recipe creativity, and quality of presentation.
The opinions of well-known local chefs, including Jerry Pellegrino of Waterfront Kitchen and Ted Stelzenmuller of Jack's Bistro, make up 75 percent of the decision about which team advances, while the guest judges have a 25 percent share of the influence, said Karen Folkart.
In 2012, the same Iron Bridge team came in second behind a team from Roy's, in Baltimore, which is not participating this year.
Lewis said the competition can spur creativity. A year ago, Iron Bridge added a peach and extra virgin olive oil cake with Chantilly cream to its dessert menu after the dish proved popular during the chef competition, Lewis said.
"It's good to get out of the restaurant and do something else that's cooking," he said. "It's a good challenge. It gets us thinking."
The semifinal round between Iron Bridge and The Point in Fells is scheduled from 6 to 9 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 19, at Mari Luna Bistro, in Baltimore. For more information or to buy tickets, go to the website, http://www.masondixonmasterchef.com.