A plain brown wrapper usually makes you wonder what is inside. When that package is filled with a surprise collection of groceries that must be transformed into a three-course meal within two hours, the mystery begins to unravel.
In the Beehive Chef's Association fifth annual "Mystery Bag Cook-Off" at the State Fair, the mystery bag bursts with an extraordinary stock - ample supply to create an appetizer, an entree and a dessert.While the bag is filled with ordinary pantry staples like flour and sugar, it also contains a generous stock of extraordinary ingredients like prosciutto ham, almond paste, cornichons or opal basil.
For Mel Harward, executive chef at The Country Club, the protein supply was excessive.
"We had seven proteins to incorporate in the meal," Harward lamented.
"And you get points for utilization of all the supplies," his partner, Country Club pastry chef, Linda Wood, said.
"You'd never make a meal at home with seven proteins." Harward continued. "We'd never make one at a restaurant. We may do a mixed grill with three, but not seven. We had chicken, pork, beef, prosciutto, sole, catfish and trout. It was a challenge to work with that many two-ounce portions. We never know what we'll get in that bag."
After a brief inventory of the available supplies, 10 cooking teams huddled in quick planning sessions, then punched the time clock to begin the two-hour preparation.
With the exception of Carl Thompson and Mike Ward of Archibald's, who sneaked a well-worn copy of "Aunt Bea's Mayberry Cookbook" under the counter, not a recipe could be found.
Not even a scrap-paper pencil-scratching.
Chefs measured by hands and fingers, tasting and testing as they worked.
Cooks relied on imagination and innovation to concoct gourmet presentations that could grace any national magazine cover.
The Archibald's pair created a backroads setting complete with canning jars, wooden crates, gunny sacks and an officially branded blackened tenderloin.
"That boy's diced everything that's not tied down," laughed observer Dorothy Christensen as she described Ward's preparation techniques.
Martin Perham's pastry technique amazed the packed house at the Home Arts building. The Quality Pastry chef teamed with Helen's Gary Pankow to produce a five-course wedding dinner for two - complete with a wedding cake.
"The cake was an almond genoise with fresh strawberries and a rolled fondant icing," Perham explained.
Molded sugar roses and wedding bells topped the creation that led master of ceremonies, KISN's Scott Fisher, to accuse Perham of a "sneak trip out to back door to Smith's Bakery. I can't believe this - give this guy a cup of flour and an egg and poof - it's a wedding cake."
Michael Nook, of Nicholas and Co., and Jay Holsworth, Cuisine Unlimited, thought they were out the back door with a stove-top piecemeal hickory smoker.
"We sort of planned to do something smoked so we brought the racks and the chips," Nook said.
"It's a big trend," Holsworth added. "Smoking produces a distinctive flavor without heavy sauces, and it's definitely low-calorie."
The pair improvised the smoker by used two large baking pans, one as a base and one as a lid. The bottom pan was placed over two gas burners, then filled with a one-inch layer of hickory chips. Footed racks were placed over the chips and topped with seasoned catfish and trout. The chips blackened and smoked as the fish cooked, sending a woodsy, campfire aroma through-out the building.
"We may have a security violation here," Todd Collard of KISN quipped. "You know it's a dry season out there."
Chef Claire Nelson, Cuisine Unlimited, teamed with Ishrath Mackie of Quality Pastry and relished the relaxation of cooking for two.
"We did lunch for 350 today, dinner for 500 last night and a surprise breakfast for the 135 people traveling with Bill Clinton yesterday morning," Nelson said. "This project would be easy if I just weren't so tired. I didn't dare look at the work schedule for to-mor-row."
Weary also described First Security Bank executive dining room chef, Bub Horne.
"I can't keep up with this guy (partner Jeff DeJong, Willowcreek Country Club); he's younger than I am," Horne said.
Keeping ahead of the next team remains a challenge for participating chefs.
Chuck-A-Rama's Eleanor Kondo Ream was volunteered as a cook, but she quickly disclaimed any competitive skills.
"I came to participate and have a good time," Ream said. "I'm not in this caliber to compete with these guys, but it's fun to be here."
Fun for some and frightening for others.
"This is sheer terror for me," joked Greg Forte of Utah Valley Community College. "The pressure is unreal. I've never worked with this guy before (Rico Renzetti, Salt Lake Community College), and we have two different ways of doing things."
For fairgoers, different makes the appeal of the event.
A trio of dyed-in-the-wool spectators, Pam and Ellen Foster and Barbara McKean, think the Beehive Chef's Association Mystery Bag Cook-Off is the only event at the annual exhibition.
"We've come every year just to see this," said Ellen Foster. "We make a special point to come early so we can get good seats."
"My uncle used to manage the fair way back when," Pam Foster said. "We knew all the stars like Emmett Kelly and the Cisco Kid; we were right in the middle of it all then, so the fair's not the same for us now."
"That's why we only come here," McKean added. "We take a look at the quilts, but we concentrate on these chefs. That Gary Pankow is so round and wonderful and full of confidence, but his pastry man is unbelievable."
The group notes the difference in the Dan's/American Airline sponsored event from year to year.
"There's so much more variety this year," Pam Foster says. "Last year was all this European nouvelle cuisine stuff, but you've got everything up there this year. This is my hobby; I like to learn from every-body."
That's the less-than-mysterious mystery of the cook-off, according to chair Mark Fitches of the University of Utah Medical Center.
"The cook-off competition allows the chefs and chef apprentices an opportunity to de-mon-strate knowledge and skill they have acquired in school and in the workplace," Fitches said.
Only one mystery remains unsolved: where are the recipes on paper for the chefs' prize-winning, exotic creations? There were no such things.
State fair `Mystery Bag Cook-off' winners
First Place: Franz Kubak, Red Lion, and Troy Wilsom, Royce's.
Trout Quenelles and Shrimp Ravioli with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce, Herbed Zucchini, Stuffed Chicken Breast, Parmesan Potatoes, Green Beans, Carrots with Dill and a Fried Crepe with Marinated Raspberry Sauce.
Second Place: Bub Horne, First Security Executive Dining Room, and Jeff DeJong, Willowcreek Country Club.
Fritzeled Chicken Livers Russe, Truite Casade (trout), Potato Pancakes and Poached Peaches.
Third Place: Gary Pankow, Helen's, and Martin Perham, Quality Pastries.
Seafood Coulis and Mushroom Fritters, Prosciutto and Chicken Livers Amora, Strawberry and Peach Sorbet, Almond-roasted Chicken with Pearls of Eternity (onions) and Almond/Strawberry Genoise Wedding Cake.
First Place, Apprentice Division: Seth Lorenzo, LaCaille, and Ginger Cook, The Aerie at Snowbird.
Medallions of Chicken, Pork Tenderloin and Catfish stuffed with Pestos and garnished with Purple Basil Sauce, Roasted Red Pepper Sauce and Dijon Mustard Garlic Sauce and a Gratin of Raspberries with Fresh Basil.
Other participating chefs: Clair Nelson and Jay Holsworth, Cuisine Unlimited; Bruce Meeham and Mel Hertig, Salt Lake Hilton; John Perry, Yarrow; Eleanor Kondo Ream, Chuck-A-Rama; Michael Nook, Nicholas and Company; Mel Harward and Kathy Wood, The Country Club; Rico Renzetti, Salt Lake Community College; Greg Forte, Utah Valley Community College; Carl Thompson and Mike Ward, Archibald's.
Judges: Mark Fitches and Jean Zancanella, University of Utah Medical Center; Frank Budd, president, Salt Lake Community College; Al Church, restaurant critic, Deseret News; Dave Brown, Sysco Intermountain; Els Cardwell, president, Intermountain Foods; and Genevieve Rowles, Utah Holiday.