Cooking contest at Camas High School serves up fun, funds for school grants

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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CAMAS — Two Camas chefs faced off Sunday to prove who could make the tastiest, prettiest and most creative dishes in just 70 minutes.

Inspired by the "Iron Chef" cooking show, it was all part of the Taste of Camas fundraiser at Camas High School, with proceeds benefiting schools in the city. ?And, as is the case on "Iron Chef," both teams had to incorporate the sometimes-dreaded secret ingredient. On Sunday, that ingredient was spicy lamb sausage.

As the clock on the scoreboard in the school's cafeteria counted down, challenger team Don't Mesa With the Best worked frantically alongside last year's champion team, School Thyme.

Besides the chefs, each team included a principal, student and PTA member from the Camas School District. They followed their chef's lead, chopping cabbage, jicama and avocados, and even making mozzarella and ice cream on the spot.

"We are approaching the 15-minute mark. Fifteen minutes," announcer Doug Quinn said. He also hovered around the hurried chefs to announce what they were doing.

Challenger chef Shelby Lin Schmidt of downtown Camas' Mesa Nuestra restaurant was assisted Sunday by Helen Baller Elementary PTA member Skip Cody, Hayes Freedom High School sophomore Sarah Flynn, and Grass Valley Elementary School principal Sean McMillan.

For one dish, Lin Schmidt and her team created what she called a "Mexican-style hash" with cumin crema, sliced avocado and a flour tortilla chip. They also prepared a shrimp dish with pineapple pico de gallo.

Reigning champion chef Tim McCusker, owner of Harvest Restaurant at the Camas Hotel, was assisted by Lacamas Heights Elementary School principal Julie Mueller, Camas High School sophomore Caden Robinson and Dorothy Fox Elementary School PTA president Nancie Edwards.

His team worked to whip up a caprise with tomatoes, mozzarella, lamb sausage and "strawberry caviar" balls made through a chemical spherification process. With minutes left, McCusker plated another one of his dishes as a girl from the audience yelled to him, "Focus, daddy, focus!"

"That's not helping," McCusker joked.

The Mexican hash and the caprise were served to VIP audience members, who got to cast a vote in the event's "People's Choice" contest. Then all of the dishes both teams concocted made their way to the judges, who scored them based on taste, creativity and presentation.

"Every year, it just keeps stepping up," judge Ken Navidi, owner of Navidi's Oils and Vinegars, said of the contestants. "This is a really tough decision."

In the end, the four judges were split 2-2. The tie-breaker included totaling each team's scores from all four judges. The tally showed School Thyme pulled in the most points overall, winning the contest.

Meanwhile, Don't Mesa With the Best was named people's choice.

The Taste of Camas event, which brought in about 200 participants, raised an estimated $3,000. That money will provide grants for schools in the district, said Mandy Huth, president of the Camas Education Foundation. Besides watching the cooking contest, many guests on Sunday had their faces painted, made sculptures out of toothpicks and veggies and visited educational booths.

Mueller, the Lacamas Heights principal on team School Thyme, said she had "a lot of fun." She describes herself as a "mom cook" whose meals never turn out the same way twice. But chef McCusker made it easy for her to help.

"I was like, 'How is this going to pull together?' And then it pulled together beautifully," Mueller said. "He rocked it."

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523; stevie.mathieu@columbian.com; twitter.com/col_stevie