Jen's Garden takes Top Honors at Bite of Bend

By Katy Yoder

Jen's Garden put Sisters cuisine on the map by winning the Bite of Bend's Iron Chef Competition earlier this month.

Some of Central Oregon's best chefs competed in a two-day battle to take top culinary honors. Chefs TR McCrystal and Caryl Hosler fought their way to the winner's circle with their well-honed teamwork and cooking savvy.

McCrystal was complimentary of Hosler's ability to keep everything running smoothly.

"When you work with somebody who can anticipate what your needs are and both of you are on the same page, it becomes like walking through a field of butterflies; it feels like you're going to run into each other, but you never do," he said. "Caryl and I are used to working in very close quarters, and by now we don't have to explain anything to each other."

McCrystal and Hosler are used to dreaming up new dishes created with ingredients of their choosing. They use special purveyors from around the world to provide them with what they need to make their ideas a reality.

The Bite of Bend's Iron Chef Competition doesn't allow them the luxury of using ingredients they've selected. They arrived at the venue on June 16 and found their kitchen set up with everything ready to go.

"The sponsor provides a pantry of ingredients. We weren't allowed to bring anything. We all got matching ingredients, and there was also a table with ingredients we could all use like truffle oil, balsamic vinegar and sambal (an Asian chili spice)," said Hosler.

One thing Hosler and McCrystal agreed on before they began the competition was not to make any dishes they'd made before.

"It was relaxing for us," said McCrystal. "From the start we were there to have fun. It was never a vicious competition. Win or lose, it didn't matter; we just gave it a try and had a good time."

There were three categories that the two had to think about: presentation; originality; and taste. Since they'd chosen not to make anything they'd made before, they knew originality wouldn't be an issue.

In the first round Jen's Garden was competing against Black Butte Ranch. Once the team was given their first secret ingredient they got a piece of paper and began writing down their game plan. With duck breast as the ingredient, they came up with a winning dish of duck breast over onion confit and pan-fried potatoes with pomegranate reduction and orange fennel slaw. Hosler's appetizer was couscous and mango salsa timbale.

For a dish with garam masala spice (an Indian spice) and a fresh mango, corn, red pepper salsa, Hosler used an interesting tool to layer the appetizer which was finished with sautéed prawns on top.

"It became quite the joke of the day, but I used a piece of cut PVC pipe to help me layer the dish. It creates a perfect mold for nice clean layers," Hosler said.

In 45 minutes they produced two dishes for three judges and won the round.

The next day, Jen's Garden was up against Marz and the secret ingredient was whole chicken. They selected the chicken breast and created a mango sausage which was pan-seared and finished with a fig molasses reduction with angel hair pasta, tomato cilantro and ginger. The appetizer, made by Hosler, was a shrimp cake with roasted garlic and a corn cream sauce. The PVC pipe was put into service again to layer the dish.

In the finals Jen's Garden faced Staccatto. Hosler was astounded at the dish McCrystal was creating and thought: "Wow! It looked incredible. Even if we didn't win, it looked amazing."

Hosler was right. McCrystal's dish was the only one in the competition to receive perfect 10s from all the judges in every category.

Jen's Garden was also the only restaurant to have a woman competing.

"Caryl really did an incredible job," said McCrystal. "It was a friendly competition, and we just did what we do best: make good food."

One of the judges commented after the event was over that Jen's Garden's team had created much more flavorful food, a compliment Hosler and McCrystal never grow tired of hearing. Several of their winning dishes will be on the restaurant menu beginning June 26, for two weeks.

"It's important to get Sisters on the map whenever possible," said McCrystal. "We have so much to be proud of here, and I don't think Sisters always gets the recognition it deserves."

The next step in competition, The Bite of Oregon, will be held in Portland, August 10-12.