As the owner of two well-regarded Cannon Beach eateries – Newman’s at 988 and Fishes Sushi & Japanese Cuisine – chef John Newman has a full plate. Still, he makes room for two of his favorite things: community outreach and matching his culinary skills against fellow chefs. He’ll get the chance to do both Tuesday, Nov. 13 at the Seaside Convention Center. There, local chefs will compete in the fifth-annual Iron Chef Goes Coastal event, with proceeds benefiting United Way of Clatsop County.
Newman was half of the winning team in the 2011 Iron Chef event, along with Will Leroux of the Wayfarer Restaurant in Cannon Beach. He enjoys the combination of local charity and competition. “As a business owner, I love being part of something that benefits the community I work in,” Newman says.
Newman remembers the event’s origins. “United Way had a retreat one year to brainstorm about fundraisers,” he says. “We realized we had chefs sitting around the table and a lightbulb went on. Jennifer Holen at Baked Alaska took the idea and ran with it.”
Newman relishes each year’s event. “I’m very competitive and want to win every year,” he says. “All the chefs feel the same way. We’re in our element, creating great dishes together in front of a receptive audience. It’s a blast.”
Jennifer Holen – co-owner of Baked Alaska and United Way board member – is thrilled at the attention Iron Chef Goes Coastal has received as a community effort. “We’ve been blown away by the positive reaction from everyone,” she says.
With the outpouring of enthusiasm came increased attendance. “The first competition was in 2008, at the Loft at the Red Building,” Holen says. “It was hot and crowded, but attendance was amazing. Everyone hoped we would do it again. We knew for this event to grow, we’d need more space.”
The Seaside Convention Center was tabbed as the Iron Chef’s new stage. “Logistically, the Convention Center is perfect,” Holen says. “The staff is incredibly professional. They handle everything from lighting to audio-visual equipment. They often know what we need before we ask.” With a new venue, the numbers of people coming through the doors swelled. In 2011, 600 people attended the competition, double the number of attendees from 2008, according to Holen.
Local businesses are instrumental in making the event hum. “Kim Fitzwater at Food Services of America plays a huge role in organizing food donations,” Holen says. “Our main sponsor, U.S. Bank, has been with us for four years. Darlene Felkins, Executive Director at United Way, is incredibly vital to our success. This event wouldn’t exist without her.”
The 2012 event will be feast for the senses. 2011 winners Newman and Leroux will again be teammates and “draw knives” with a team made of chefs from 2011 People’s Choice Award Winners Astoria Coffeehouse & Bistro and Stephanie Inn. The two teams will compete for the Iron Chef Goes Coastal title. “Part of the fun is that no one knows who (Newman and Leroux) will be teamed with or against,” Holen says. “It adds an element of surprise.”
As with every good meal, dessert plays an important role. Attendees cast votes for the People’s Dessert Choice, where local pastry chefs compete for Best Dessert of Clatsop County. “I hope everyone comes hungry,” Holen says.
Another fun aspect is a judge’s chair auctioned to the highest bidder. The guest judge then visits each restaurant and casts his or her vote for the 2012 People’s Choice Award Winner. “We’ve had celebrity judges, like (state) Sen. Betsy Johnson, but we wanted to give attendees a chance to join the action,” Holen says.
Most importantly, the Iron Chef event benefits local charities. “People are justifiably cautious about donating money,” Holen says. “What’s great about giving to Clatsop United Way is that 100 percent of the money stays here.” The money raised by Iron Chef Goes Coastal is used to leverage grants for community projects. According to Holen, in 2011 the event raised almost $30,000.
The idea of using what they do for a living to benefit their community is a huge draw for Holen and Newman. “I think it’s wonderful that the industry I work in comes together so willingly,” Holen says. “It’s rewarding to see people give of themselves to make this succeed. It makes me proud to do what I do.”
Newman agrees. “As a young chef, I imagined myself cooking rich food for rich people,” he laughed. “Now, I make a living doing what I love, and it gives me the opportunity to give back. It doesn’t get any better than that.”