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Detroit’s abundance in great food, foodies and generosity will create the Next Urban Chef

Detroit’s best chefs, lots of wine, amazing eats and a surprise panel of judges – now tell me you’re not intrigued with this year’s Next Urban Chef competition?

Here’s the scene: Four local cooking connoisseurs match up with four teams of area teens for a food fight of epic proportions Sept. 15 at Eastern Market. Winner takes only bragging rights, but everyone walks away with a profound sense of what eating healthy, whole foods actually means.

The throwdown starts at 10 a.m. And you, Humble Reader, can have a seat at this table of abundance. More about that later – because there’s a fund-raising site that needs our collective love.

You know what whole food means? Here’s what co-organizer Alison Heeres (manager at University of Michigan’s Project Healthy Schools in Detroit) taught me today. It about corn grown on a farm where you actually meet the farmer. It’s about learning how to shuck, prep, boil and season said vegetables. It’s not a bag of chemically created orange-ish corn-based blobs of heart-stopping grease. That stuff is what turns your town into a mockery for overweight blobs of another kind.

No, sir. What we’re talking about here is helping students learn about heirloom tomatoes, locally produced blueberries that are firm to the touch and carrots so sweet and crunchy you can almost smell the dirt from the garden they came from hanging from their perky greens.

Quick background: The Next Urban Chef is the brainstorm of three locals and a bunch of volunteers, amazing sponsors and Eastern Market. The idea got its legs last year with the first competition; this year should take that promise to fruition and then some. We’re talking great lighting ala “Top Chef” or “Chopped.” This isn’t small potatoes anymore, people.

The student teams are led by four chef mentors: Chef Dave Mancini of Supino Pizzeria, Chef Andy Hollyday of Roast, Chef Eric Giles of Sunday Dinner Co. and Chef Will Branch of Corridor Sausage Co. These men gave of their time, talent and knife skills throughout the preparation, which started back in May, Heeres told me this week.

Every effort is made for the kids – they spend many nights in class, learning food safety, knife skills and other lessons about what makes cooking an art, said Matthew Naimi, another co-organizer (and cool owner of Recycle Here! in Detroit).

“The food system is a big chunk of society, and it creates a lot of jobs. We wanted to bring that all together and create some skills in the process,” said Naimi, who calls himself the event guy. (Alison is the driving force, he said, and John Schoeniger is the finance guy who pulls it all together.)

Naimi added: “The wonderful thing is seeing the chefs who have very busy restaurants enjoying their time with the kids – you can see there’s a bond there. There’s a respect. Hopefully we are creating future chefs.”

Maybe one will become a great chef. Maybe one becomes a farmer. Maybe one creates amazing dishes for their family, feeding them what is natural instead of what is mass produced. Every baby pea makes a difference in this game. Really, Heeres said, it is a food-system project at heart.

“There definitely is a food movement growing in this city,” Heeres said. “Detroit has become a foodie haven, and businesses are coming here to become part of that circle. … We want these groups, these students to be exposed to these ideas if they’re interest in the culinary arts. We want to give Detroit students the same access to information, access to movements, access to ideas as those in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle.

“That’s how they’ll understand the fervor of the food movement –they need to be a part of it. We hope this competition engages them – engage them in the learning. It also brings them to the centerplace of this moment – Eastern Market – where the food is being bought and sold,” Heeres continued.

The competition will go something like this. Each team will create three unique dishes using fresh, local ingredients. The idea is to come up with innovative appetizers, a main course and a dessert, Naimi said. A panel of judges – and you won’t know who they are until you show up that morning – will determine the winner.

Things will be interesting for all parties involved because the teams don’t know what the others are making. The only commonality is that everything on the plate will come from the local area. They also will be competing against the clock. So every chef will have their head in the game that day, hoping to defeat one another and especially Mancini, maker of All Things Pizza in Detroit, who will be defending his title.

And, if you’re lucky, he will be making your lunch as well. That’s right! If you donate enough coin, you can be sitting along with three others at a chef’s table, getting to sample everything that comes before the judges and then some. That “then some” comes in the form of a wine pairing for every dish courtesy of Motor City Wine. That’s an incredible combination if I’ve ever heard of one.

Just click through this here link to the website where you can donate toward the whole project. Remember – everything is going toward the Eastern Market Corp, which is a 501(c)3. That means you get to feel good, have a fully tummy and get a tax deduction at year’s end. Win-win-win, my friends.

Perhaps one student could become a celebrity chef, giving Detroit an even greater name when it comes to creating great food, top-notch wine pairings or a home for urban farming. Whatever the outcome, it’s bound to taste pretty sweet.

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