Now in its fifth year, the Mason Dixon Master Chef Tournament has become an annual summer showcase for local culinary talent.
The single-elimination style competition, which is hosted by The Inn at The Colonnade in Roland Park this year, got under way last month. Currently, half of the original 16 competitors are still in the running to win the coveted Master Chef title.
“I’ve been working in kitchens since I was 13, but [these competitions] open my eyes to a whole other stage of cooking,” says Jeff Keeney, executive chef at Tark’s Grill, who has participated in the tournament since its first year. “It’s easy to get complacent at the restaurant, and when you rely too much on old menus you get stale. Without this competition, there’s nothing there to push me.”
Along with Keeney, the list of local chefs that are still duking it out to the final round includes Melissa Fordham of Pikesville’s Gourmet Again, Sean Praglowski of Luckie’s Tavern in Power Plant Live, and Jirat Suphrom-In of My Thai in Little Italy.
The summer-long event consists of weekly heats that require chefs to execute a three-course themed menu in just 90 minutes. Keeney is currently gearing up for his next match, “Battle Aphrodisiac,” on July 20, where he plans to serve Oysters Rockefeller deconstructed, hanger steak with quail eggs, and white chocolate risotto. Coincidentally, Keeney’s rival for his next battle, Chef Bill Kelley of Renditions Golf Course, is also a former co-worker.
“We’ve been great friends forever, so no matter who wins it will still be a lot of fun,” Keeney says.
The tournament’s panel of nine judges includes area chefs like Jerry Pellegrino of Waterfront Kitchen, Ted Stelzenmuller of Jack’s Bistro, and Neill Howell of The Corner Pantry, who earned the title of Mason Dixon Master Chef in 2013. The panel rates each dish based on presentation, creativity, and taste after the clock winds down.
Keeney notes that although the battles are stressful at times—citing an instance where he badly burned risotto—his “no nerves” mentality and seasoned strategies see him through each matchup.
“It never goes totally as planned, but my sous have been with me for 11 years, so we have it down to a formula, we’re like a machine.” he says.