Nickel City Chef: Buffalo's Annual Culinary Competition
One of my fondest childhood memories is watching after-dinner reruns of cooking competitions, in awe of the culinary masterpieces that seemed to appear out of thin air. For me, there is something uniquely exciting and inspiring about these shows: the fast-paced environment, the quirky and challenging ingredients, the thrill of the last-minute dash to get the presentation just right. They motivate you to get up off the couch and into the kitchen to test your own culinary skills.
When I found out about a live challenge based in Buffalo that combines my love of cooking competitions with a passion for everything local, I couldn’t wait to find out more. Since its inception in 2009, Nickel City Chef has tasked talented and innovative area chefs to create dishes from locally sourced secret ingredients ranging from Cornish Rock Hens to DeMaas Ale, and has sold out over two dozen live shows.
I caught up with Christa Glennie Seychew, owner of Nickel City Chef and an advocate for western New York’s farm-to-table movement, to get an inside look at "Buffalo’s finest culinary competition” and find out more about the area’s emerging food scene.
Can you tell us a bit about how Nickel City Chef got started?
There was a series of fortunate circumstances back in 2007 that led to the launch of Nickel City Chef. These included the unanticipated discovery of the amazing space at Artisan Kitchens & Baths in 2007, thanks to Newell Nussbaumer at Buffalo Rising, and the formation of Feed Your Soul Productions, a company designed to execute events highlighting local chefs and ingredients. It took a long time to put all the pieces together, but we’re nine seasons in and could never have anticipated the success, relationships and opportunities that have come from it.
In 2012, we released a cookbook focused on the competition, and in 2014, we were invited to cook at the James Beard House, which is a pretty big deal in the food world. When we started the show, one of the key ideas was to get the WNY populace and press to stop fawning over rumors that some network TV star was stopping into town and instead start talking about local chefs. I think it worked.
What makes Buffalo and Western New York such a great place for farm-to-table cooking?
We have almost 7,500 farms in the eight counties of WNY. The climate, terrain, and soil vary greatly from north to south and east to west, which means the land raises an abundance of incredible produce and fruit -- not to mention its dairy production and livestock farming. We could use more middlemen (butchers, cheesemakers, and the like), but the variety is there! As the movement gains traction, more farmers are diversifying their crops and finding ways to close the production gap in the cold season, including putting up greenhouses and mastering cold storage. It is a delight for home cooks, but our city’s best chefs are the ones who have taken it to a different level.
The competition runs from February to April every year. How do you incorporate fresh produce during the winter season and why is important to source local ingredients?
Our produce and dry goods are sourced from Lexington Co-op, which has the best selection of local produce in the city with the exception of one or two of our best farmers’ markets. The Co-op is open every day, year round, so it’s a wonderful resource for us.
Many studies show that sourcing produce locally is exponentially better for the local economy, more nutritious and safer in terms of the likelihood of contamination. Plus, there is no doubt it tastes better! If every person in WNY spent $10 a month on local food (direct from a farmer), it would have a massive impact on our region’s economy.
I have heard the term “food nerds” used to describe your chefs. Can you tell me more about what that means?
In my eyes, the people we think of as foodies (or food lovers) are folks who love to go out to eat and appreciate eating good food. And we need them -- lots of them! But food nerds obsess over every step of how a dish is made, from the sourcing of ingredients to preparation and plating. They will spend hours researching the history of gelatin molds or mustard. Of course, food nerds love the end result, too. But it is the history, customs and methods behind the food -- the how and the why -- that they just can’t get enough of.
How do you choose the secret ingredient for each competition?
Our secret ingredient is always local and never duplicated. Let me tell you, finding an amazing and unique wintertime ingredient for almost 40 shows has been a challenge. It’s about finding a viable ingredient that is as close to raw state as possible. Sometimes the extra challenge is good, but we don’t want to impact the chefs’ own culinary points of view with an ingredient that is somewhat inflexible.
What kind of restrictions are put on the dishes? Is it as simple as incorporating the secret ingredient?
Chefs can make whatever they want, with some minor stipulations. They can only serve three courses. Any dish that’s a flight can hold no more than three separate preparations. Chefs aren’t allowed to serve a paired beverage unless it’s made up of at least 60 percent secret ingredient. We also have a limit on the cost of ingredients for any one dish -- we wouldn’t want chefs trying to sway judges with fine wine and pounds of freshly shaved truffles.
Do things ever go wrong cooking in front of a live audience?
Things go wrong all the time, but it is our job to make sure the audience (and sometimes the chefs themselves) aren’t aware that there is a problem. We’ve had the power go out, and a couple of times there has been so much smoke we’ve had to open all the windows in the middle of February. Luckily, I have the most amazing crew — nothing has ever stopped or slowed down a show.
What are the most creative dishes you’ve seen in competition?
We challenge the chefs to use the secret ingredient in as many ways as they can per plate. We’ve seen ingredients dehydrated and ground into a powder garnish, turned into vinegar, pickled, fermented, liquefied, dry-aged, pulverized to create a flour-type substance, and even made into ice cream. When molecular gastronomy was still popular, there were waves of vapor from liquid nitrogen that awed the audience. Even after 10 years of working closely with Buffalo chefs, the creativity of our region’s truly professional chefs still astounds me.
Do you have any suggestions on how to simply and affordably incorporate farm-to-table practices at home?
You can buy locally by paying attention to the signage and labeling at your local market. Learn what’s in season (something so many people seem to be unaware of), so that you can enjoy and focus on the best produce at its peak. I cook on Sundays and prep lunches for myself and the kids (usually grain bowls), as well as a couple dinners for the week. It takes the stress off of me on busy weekdays and keeps us from eating out when we’re just too tired to cook. For more creative cooks with a bit more time, find a local CSA (community supported agriculture) farm; it can make your weekly produce costs much lower.
Where do you see the future of the local food movement headed in WNY?
WNY lost important resources and middlemen during the last four or five decades when processed food became the foundation of the American diet. I’d like to think those with access and resources have moved in a better direction, but it will take a long time to restore the delivery systems, butchers, and other middlemen required to take advantage of our local agricultural opportunities. I think a larger catalog of better quality value added food products (like ice cream and cheeses, pickled and canned fruits and vegetables, etc.) is a key way to move things forward. We very much need a company dedicated to sourcing and selling local food to restaurants in the city, where almost every upper casual restaurant is sourcing locally year-round now. Vegetables are taking over the modern plate, and meat is diminishing in most cases, becoming more of an ingredient or addition. With the direction food trends are taking, the future holds a lot of potential for the region if we want it to.
Follow Nickel City Chef on Facebook and Instagram to keep up with the live competition.