Top Chef

April 21, 2009 at midnight
Updated April 20, 2009 at 11:21 p.m.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in a Top Chef event benefiting The Vine Street School.

I was invited by my friends, Myra and Clayton Johnson, to join their cooking team and cook. Clayton serves on the board of the school. He planned to prepare barbecued pork ribs and chicken with a side of corn pudding.

He had secured two guys who were no strangers to barbecue cooking, Curtis Smith and Tim Janysek. Clayton and his dad own one of the fanciest barbecue rigs you have ever seen, so I knew if we were competing on how good the equipment looked then we would win for sure.

The Vine School is a school for autistic children ages 3 to 8. The school was started in June 2008 by John and Melody Handley and Erin Hatley. John and Melody needed specialized education for their daughter, Mabry, and searched South Texas for a school to teach her.

They were only able to find this type of place in the larger cities. They loved living in Victoria and did not want to move, so they decided to start a Christian private school for children with autism. The school is located in downtown Victoria and has four students.

They use a multi-sensory curriculum, which addresses the social and language challenges that the children encounter. Erin Hatley serves as the school's executive director.

Autism is a serious communication disorder, which affects about 1 in 200 children. When Mabry was 3, the Handleys realized she was slow in meeting her developmental milestones, such as walking and talking.

The Handley's vision of the school is to help parents and students deal with autism and reach their learning potential. They are pouring their life and resources into the school.

The Vine School is privately funded by benefactors and events, such as the annual Top Chef.

I was not too nervous about the cooking competition, since I knew it was all in fun, and of course, its main purpose was to raise money for the school. I have known John and Melody and their daughter for several years, and I was eager to help in any way I could.

Clayton decided to call our team, "Myra, Myra and Me," the me portion being Clayton. Our other two members, Curtis and Tim did most of the barbecuing and Myra and I were auxiliary staff.

The guys cooked chicken and ribs and Myra made a great corn pudding. We called the pudding M2 Corn Pudding (two Myras). I had so many requests for the recipe that I wanted to include it in my column this week.

We were up against other teams of incredible talent. John Pierce Jr. of Double J Eatery, John Welder of Alimento Catering, Tonja Patterson (another professional caterer), Rick Tinney of Panache Restaurant in Goliad and Matthew Reid of Victoria Country Club.

In order to make the competition feel comfortable, Myra and I began to visit their rigs and taste their food. The guests at the event were able to taste food from each chef team and then cast a vote at the end of the evening.

I converted several guests from "I don't think I like corn pudding" to "can I have more?" Myra had prepared enough for 250 people and in the end all of our corn pudding was gone and guests were scraping the pan. I think it is mainly due to the fact that people love comfort food and butter.

John Welder's team prepared barbecued quail. I gobbled Mediterranean Sliders with Red Pepper Aioli made by Matthew Reid.

Myra thought I should not be eating food from the competition, but how often do you find yourself in a room with so many talented cooks? Not often enough for me.

She gave in when I brought over a bowl of soup from John's team. The color was beautiful with a contrast of green and red with the dollop of cilantro cream in the middle.

I loved the soup and John decided to share his recipe for Blistered Poblano Cream and Red Pepper Bisque with Fire Roasted Chili Corn Chutney and Cilantro Jalapeno Cream. He was voted the Top Chef at the end of the evening and deserved the title.

I look forward to next year's competition. I think I will be serving a delicious poblano and red pepper soup. Just kidding, John.

Visit the Vine School's Web site

The school will host free summer programs for autistic children ages 3-9. Please contact the school for more information.

Myra Starkey lives in Victoria. Write her in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901, or e-mail



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