Crab takes center stage at Spenger’s ‘Iron Chef’ contest

The prepared dishes at Spenger’s 11th Annual Crabby Chefs Festival. Photos: Frances Dinkelspiel

The unexpected rain on Sunday in Berkeley didn’t put much of a damper on the 11th annual Spenger’s Restaurant Crabby Chefs Seafood Festival on Fourth Street. The drizzle stopped right before the 2 pm “Iron Chef” cook-off featuring chefs from seven local restaurants, schools, and catering companies.

When I arrived, a little before 2 pm, contest preparations were already under way. Chefs from Picante, Pyramid Alehouse, Origen, A Farm to Table Restaurant, BoilerHouse Restaurant, Giovanni, Picante Cocina Mexicana, Chef James SF, and Contra Costa College Culinary Program were gathered around their temporary kitchens, constructed of folding tables, portable gas burners, and an array of pots and pans.

Chefs at the Spenger’s “Iron Man” cook-off had to use crab as the center of their dishes

The chefs knew they would get one whole Dungeness crab and a pound of cooked crab meat to use, along with a mystery ingredient. Rumor had it that the mystery ingredient was cranberries, but that proved to be wrong. At the beginning of the contest, the chefs learned they had to incorporate grapes into their final dishes.

The timer went off and the cooks poised for their battle, scrambling to gather up bunches of grapes and then hurrying to the makeshift larder to pick up onions, peppers, lettuce, cucumbers, avocados, cream, stock, bread crumbs and anything else they wanted to use. Within minutes they were chopping, grinding and sautéeing, and a large crowd gathered to watch. The chefs had 25 minutes to cook, plate their dishes, and set them on a table for judging.


Chefs run in to choose grapes, their “mystery ingredient.”

I had been recruited to judge the contest, along with other reporters who were way more “foodie” than I. The two hosts of KSFO-AM’s new show, “Edible Escape,” Anthony Licciardi and Ken Berry, were there, as was Anneli Rufus, a Daily Beast writer who reviews East Bay restaurants for Gayot.com and Peggy Spear, who freelances for the Bay Area News Group and many other places.

The contest was a benefit for Cal Recreational Sports’ summer program, one of many charities that Spenger’s supports throughout the year. The restaurant also raises funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, hosts free dinners for 300-400 former servicemen on Veteran’s Day, and runs a backpack program for school children, among other programs, said Richard Villarreal, the general manager.

Spenger’s presented Cal Recreational Sports with a $2,500 check.

Chefs from Picante prepare a crab salad made with grapes, guacamole, cilantro oil, and hot pepper oil. Picante won a third place prize
Alex Sanchez (l) ex-Vivande in San Francisco. The Schipani family hired him a year ago when they reopened the 50-year old Giovanni’s on Shattuck
Daniel Clayton and Trace Leighton plan to open their new restaurant, Origen, on Telegraph Avenue in a few weeks. They are just waiting for the city of Berkeley to sign off on the final permits for their farm to table restaurant
A chef from the Contra Costa College Culinary Program prepares crab quenelles with two dipping sauces
Mushrooms, onions, and peppers saute for the Origen dish
The crowd watches the cook-off
The chefs from Pyramid Ale made a crab salad with grilled hearts of romaine lettuce, cucumbers, and a citrus vinagrette.
The entry from Giovanni’s was portobello mushrooms stuffed with a sauté of crab meat, peppers, and spinach

This was not an easy contest to judge since all the dishes were innovative and delicious. But I certainly couldn’t disagree with the winning dish: a corn and crab beignet with grapes, ginger and a honey reduction sauce. I never would have thought of using crab in a sweet dish, but it worked. It was the second year in a row that James Koskiniemi won the contest. A former chef at The Bellevue Club in Oakland, he now runs a catering company called Chef James SF.

James Koskiniemi of Chef James SF (left) won first place for his crab beignets with grapes, ginger, and a honey reduction sauce. Kristela Nazario-Mendoza of Pyramid Ale (middle) won second place and Luis Rodriguez from Picante (right) took third place
The Toni Macaroni band played at the Spenger’s event