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Colorado Lamb Cook-Off returns to Taste of Vail

CREATED: 2006-03-23 01:01 PM


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Stephen Lloyd Wood, media liaison
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Colorado Lamb Cook-Off returns to Taste of Vail

VAIL, Colo. - The return of one of the culinary world's most popular new events is being heralded as "the second coming of lamb."

Still salivating from last year's inaugural Colorado Lamb Cook-Off, organizers the 16th annual Taste of Vail fine wine and food extravaganza decided to bring the savory competition back again this year. The second annual Colorado Lamb Cook-Off opens the four-day festival, in the heart of Vail Village on Gore Creek Drive, on Wednesday, April 5, from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

"The Lamb Cook-Off is so indicative of Colorado," says Megan Wortman, spokeswoman for the Denver-based American Lamb Board, which is donating 500 pounds of locally grown leg of lamb to the event. "Fantastic chefs with unique, outstanding presentations - last year, people were going gangbusters over it all. And there's no better way to promote the fact Colorado produces some of the finest lamb in the world."

Vying for the coveted title of "lamb guru," more than a dozen chefs from throughout the Vail Valley - home to more Wine Spectator award-winning restaurants than any other resort community in the United States - will be serving up samples of the tastiest lamb they can muster. Last year's competition, a blind tasting judged on presentation and taste by a panel of experts, was won by Executive Chef Tom Newsted of Game Creek Restaurant, whose "juice-dripping, spring onion-spiced leg of lamb made normally stoic shredders weep," according to the Denver Post.

The Colorado Lamb Cook-Off is not covered by Taste of Vail's Festival Pass. For $2 each, however, samples of the chefs' lamb offerings will be available to the general public, along with lamb-friendly tasting pours from nearly two dozen participating wineries. Proceeds go to Taste of Vail, a charitable, nonprofit organization that over the past 15 years has contributed more than $300,000 to Vail Valley charities.

Newsted and other local chefs who've committed to this year's showdown have been bantering for weeks, trading barbs and egging each other on as they prepare to make a go for the top prize, $1,000 cash. The runner-up receives a gas grill, donated by The Home Depot; third place garners an eight-piece set of cookware, donated by All-Clad Metalcrafters. Results will be announced during Taste of Vail's finale, the annual Grand Tasting, Auction and Dance on Saturday, April 8, at the Vail Marriott Mountain Resort and Spa.

"I've got a very good thing going this year. It's a surprise, so I can't tell you about it," says Executive Chef Steven Topple of Beano's Cabin. "But I'm ready to issue the challenge: Thomas, I'm gonna whip your @$& this year."

"Thomas's dish was superb, indeed," admits Geordy Ogden, executive chef at Saddleridge, who's been chomping at the bit for another chance at the title. "Seeing what went on last year, we'll definitely be turning it up a notch. We've got a couple of things up our sleeves."

Anthony Mazza, chef de cuisine at Vail's Restaurant Kelly Liken, says one secret to cooking lamb is not "overpowering its natural flavors" with strong ingredients.

"Last year, we tried to keep it simple and elegant. People loved it. Many said it reminded them of something - something they just couldn't put their finger on," says Mazza, whose recipe, Grandma Mazza's Leg of Lamb, got rave reviews. "It's a reminiscent dish, warm and comfortable. You could taste the time and care in the production. Feeling and memory are what translated through the dish."

Chef Randy Belanger of Chap's Grill & Chophouse, a AAA Four Diamond award-winning steakhouse at the Vail Cascade Resort & Spa, says he's looking forward to "exploring the possibilities" this year, having honed his skills with lamb in both Japanese and Thai cuisine working on yachts in the South Pacific and off the coast of New Zealand.

"Judges are always looking for something new, so maybe I'll reach into my Asian background," says Belanger.

Newsted, meanwhile, is taking all the talk of relinquishing his title in stride. "Bring your iron," he says to his challengers, "because I'm gonna wring you up."

The Taste of Vail was created in 1990 by a group of Vail Valley restaurateurs as a marketing event to showcase the resort's world-class restaurants. This year, as many as 5,000 attendees and volunteers are expected to participate in the 16th annual Taste of Vail, April 5-8, with chefs from more than three dozen local restaurants and winemakers and/or owners of six dozen wineries from around the world participating.

For more information on Colorado lamb, including, award-winning recipes from renowned chefs, tips for preparing various cuts, a nutritional guide, suggestions for wine pairing and much more, visit For more information about the 16th annual Taste of Vail, or to buy tickets to the festival's other events, visit or call 970-926-5665.

Facts about lamb:

• Domestically raised lamb, which is freshly available year-round and primarily grain-fed, provides a clean, mild flavor, along with a high meat-to-bone ratio.
• American Lamb is 10,000 miles fresher than imported lamb.
• More than 90 percent of American Lamb will grade USDA "choice" or better.
• According to a recent survey, consumers prefer American Lamb to imported lamb. They ranked it superior in terms of quality, taste and healthfulness. (Synovate Study, 2004)
• Wine expert, Karen MacNeil, author of "The Wine Bible," says American lamb is the quintessential accompaniment for a wide variety of wines from around the world - reds, whites and roses.
• Restaurants choose American Lamb over foreign lamb by a three-to-one margin.
• Lamb can be prepared using a variety of cooking methods including braised, broiled, grilled, roasted and pan-fried.
• American Lamb's unique mild flavor offers the versatility to pair well with simple seasonal ingredients.
• Fresh American Lamb can be purchased at local butcher shops and meat retailers in a variety of cuts.
• There are more than 75,000 American Lamb producers throughout the United States.
• Lamb's adaptability to a wide range of climates and management systems makes it possible to raise them all over the United States year-round.
• 100 percent of American Lamb sold commercially is federally inspected.
• Approximately 3.75 million lambs in the United States are made available for consumption annually.

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