A television-style cookoff came to Williamsport on Sunday evening.
The parish hall at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, 142 Market St., was transformed into a “Kitchen Stadium” for the fifth annual “Iron Chef Williamsport.”
The competition pitted the Rev. Kenneth Elkin, Todd Smith and Kathy Eshelman of St. Mark’s against the Rev. Jerry Fourrot, Brian Shuler and Phil Johnson from Lycoming Center Presbyterian Church, 646 W. Creek Road, Cogan Station.
Action in the kitchen was broadcast for diners in the hall on a projection screen and online over Ustream. Demand was high for a ticket to the event; 112 were sold, according to Bernadette Jones, a member at St. Mark’s, who was the “roving reporter” on the floor.
“We had to be on a waiting list,” said Dawn Blanchard, of Williamsport. “You got to get your tickets early … though you have to remember none (of the chefs) know anything about cooking. One’s a preacher, one’s a banker.”
“It’s our first time,” said Betty Ann Leiby, of Williamsport, a member of Lycoming Center Presbyterian. “We’re excited to see what happens for our team.”
The competing chefs might have been novices, but attendees were guaranteed a five-course meal. They were served a dinner of beef tenderloin made by St. Mark’s member Bob Jones and his volunteer staff.
“It’s a long couple days,” Jones said. “We started prepping on Wednesday … everything is cooked here, and we get the kids to start giving back so they don’t suck the life out of us. All take a turn in the kitchen, all do the floor.”
Jones, who once cooked at the Williamsport Country Club, does a fair number of events at St. Mark’s, and he says Iron Chef is his most difficult.
“We’re serving the dining and staff, and all that without a kitchen,” he said.
First-time servers were given one bit of advice.
“They told us to serve left and clear right,” said Chelsea Bloom.
Evan Barone and Ben Haussman, seventh-graders at Curtin Middle School, are St. Mark’s members and in their second year of serving.
“This is one of the most popular things we do,” Barone said. “We do five to 10 events a year … the server with the most tips does get to win them.”
The two churches are among the 13 area congregations that serve as hosts for Family Promise of Lycoming County. Iron Chef Williamsport benefits Family Promise’s mission of fighting homelessness, with 75 percent of each $25 ticket, along with donations from local businesses, going into the organization’s coffers.
“Outside of what Family Promise raises on our own, this probably is the biggest fundraiser by an outside organization,” said MaryAnn Vance, president of Family Promise’s board of directors. “We don’t take any government money. It’s Lycoming County taking care of its own, with churches, businesses and lots and lots of volunteers.”
As dinner was served to the crowd, the chefs began their hour of cooking on camera.
“You look at their faces, and these guys are always competitive,” said Carlos Saldivia, who has produced “Iron Chef” at St. Mark’s all five years. “Everyone’s running around the kitchen … anytime you can put a competition with a fundraiser, they always win.”
After an hour, judges Logan Hinkley and Angela Hess, of the Williamsport Country Club, and Peter Zerbe, of Lycoming College, were served dishes that included “secret” ingredients of veal and mango.
“This is like waiting for the opening bell of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight,” said announcer Mike Caschera as the teams plated their dishes.
The judges awarded St. Mark’s team a close-decision victory for its “Tour of the Mediterranean” style meal.
No one went home salty.
“We are the ‘Iron Chefs,’ ” Bernadette Jones said of her St. Mark’s cooking crew. “We’ve only lost once so far, but no one (really) loses. It’s Family Promise that wins.”