A fresh approach

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

When you ask Dewayne Schaaf about the competition, you can almost see a grin.

You get the feeling he's repressing a smile, the urge to release his delight. He seems humble, yet he's eager to talk about his craft. And a neutral observer can understand why.

Rarely do rural chefs get public appreciation. The chefs here, while known in some circles, are hardly celebrities. They spend hours in the heat of a kitchen, usually hidden from the public. Few customers ever see the face behind the masterpiece, and the good chefs do put a little of their own creativity into artwork that is gone in less than an hour.

Given the chef's way of life, it's easy to understand why cooking contests can stoke a chef's esteem.

With Schaaf and the AgriMissouri contest, the feeling goes beyond the thrill of competition. The rewards are reaped by the neighbors who harvested the food as well as the chefs who prepared it.

Schaaf, the executive chef at Celebrations Restaurant and Bar in Cape Girardeau, took second place in the AgriMissouri contest held earlier this fall. AgriMissouri is a branch under the Missouri Department of Agriculture. Judges traveled around the state, taste-testing various recipes.

The winners were recently announced. Among 11 semifinalists, Schaaf competed against chefs from all over the state and finished second behind a chef from Springfield. The two bronze winners hailed from St. Louis and Hermann.

It was the second year for the AgriMissouri contest. Schaaf (pronounced Shoff) is the only chef to have placed in the top three both years.

He says he owes it largely to local agriculture outfits.

His winning recipe was for braised lamb shanks with Norton reduction sauce, Chevre mashed potatoes, shiitake mushrooms and Swiss chard.

And the prize was peppered with ingredients from the Show Me State.

He got the four lamb shanks from Prairie Grass Farms. He got three garlic cloves from Farrar Out Farms. He got his thyme, rosemary and Swiss chard from Show Me Fresh Farms. He got the shiitake mushrooms from Ozark Forest.

But Schaaf, a Ste. Genevieve resident with a German-cooking background, didn't pick the local ingredients just for the contest.

"During the summer I'm out at the farmers markets at least twice a week," he said. "It's a nice option, getting more local produce. You can get it more often, it's fresher and the selection is better. Southeast Missouri does have a good food source of its own."

Sarah Shultz, who coordinates the AgriMissouri program, said the goal of the competition is to get more chefs to use more Missouri products.

It seems to be working.

Schaaf entered the contest on a whim last year. He said he already used a lot of local products, but the contest really made him think about what other ingredients he could get locally.

And Schaaf isn't the only one.

In the wake of this year's contest, the Central Missouri Chef's Association is conducting a fund raiser using Missouri products. Ten percent of the profits will go to the Central Missouri Food Bank.

"I definitely think we've got the chefs thinking about it," Shultz said. "These products aren't shipped on a semi truck across the country. Consumers can taste the difference."

Octavia Scharenborg, owner of Show Me Fresh Farms near Cape Girardeau, can attest to that. Her business, which specializes in hydroponic (grown in water) lettuces and herbs, has increased dramatically over the past two years. She has tripled the number of clients she had three years ago.

In addition to Celebrations, where Schaaf works, she also provides produce to two Cape Girardeau restaurants and several major St. Louis hotels.

"They all like to have Missouri home-grown products," she said. "It's getting more and more [popular] all the time."

bmiller@semissourian.com

243-6635

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