Chefs face off in farmers market challenge

Credit: Photo by Margie O’Loughlin

As the old adage goes, you don’t want to have too many cooks in the kitchen. But on Saturday, Aug. 15, two cooks, and a few able assistants, were just the right number. Executive chefs Steve Hesse and Joe Rolle, of Libertine and Il Foro restaurants respectively, faced off in the Fourth Annual Minneapolis Farmers Market Chef Challenge.

As the clock struck 10 a.m., Hesse and Rolle hit the ground running. The chefs were only allowed  20 minutes to shop for all the ingredients they needed. It’s Minnesota after all, so there was no budging in line, and the harried chefs had to wait their turn as the minutes ticked by. The aisles were jammed and Picco commented, “It’s a good thing they both seemed friendly this morning.”

Twenty minutes later, Hesse and Rolle laid out their bags of market-fresh produce and started to prep. Three judges were sitting by with pencils sharpened, ready to rank the chefs’ creations 30 minutes later. The criteria they would use to select the “Master of the Market” were:  freshness, taste, presentation, creativity and the likelihood that a regular person could re-create their meal at home.

As it turned out, both chefs were making a version of chilled Southwestern soup — pretty tough on a day when the mercury crept up to 91 degrees. Early on, the chefs joked that they seemed to be making the same recipe. Rolle explained, “My  inspiration is from south of the border, and my opponent’s [recipe] is from farther north.” 

While Rolle spoke, one of his assistants hunched over the counter removing basil and cilantro flowers (to be used as a garnish) with a slender tweezers. The difference in the final results, it turned out, would be in the subtleties.

The audience watched as the competition heated up, with the chefs breaking out in heavy sweats as they sliced, simmered, and pureed their seasonal ingredients. There’s a lot to be learned at a high level cooking demonstration like this. Judge Stephanie Meyer, a food writer and photographer as well as a cooking instructor, observed: “Being organized  sure helps.”

Fast forward to 10:50 a.m., when Hesse presented his chilled, roasted corn soup to the judges first. His stand-out ingredients included a vibrant cilantro paste, flower petals and crispy popcorn — but it wasn’t quite enough to sway the judges. In the end, he lost by one point to Rolle, whose addition of smoked trout from the market put his soup, “over the top,” according to judge Chris Nye.

And so the title “Master of the Market” went to chef Joe Rolle, whose Il Foro Restaurant serves up a modern approach to classic Italian cooking in downtown Minneapolis — seven savory days a week.

The event was underwritten by Country Financial, an insurance and investment planning company offering  services to about a million households across 20 states. Agency manager Jeff Picco said:  “We’ve had our roots in agriculture from the beginning, so connecting with people through the Farmers Market  is a natural fit. We’re all about getting out there in the community.”