Lamb chops get gourmet treatment during cook-off in Orchard Park

Chef Justin Pioche claims $250 first prize with Navajo-inspired dish

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Undeterred by the rush of nearby traffic, three local chefs did their best to put their own spin on lamb chops July 15 under the gazebo at Orchard Park in downtown Farmington during the Northwest New Mexico Local Food Summit cook-off.

The event was held in the midst of the weekly Makers Market in Orchard Park, attracting a crowd of dozens of curious onlookers and vendors. It was one of the highlights of the four-day food summit, an annual event that offered a mixture of virtual and live events designed to promote the development and growth of a local food system in the region.

The winner of the previous cook-off, Justin Pioche, successfully defended his title with a Navajo-inspired dish that featured grilled lamb served on a blue corn mush and smothered in a cream sauce with braised kale. He took home a prize of $250 and was all smiles afterward.

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Chef Justin Pioche raises his arms in celebration while fellow competitors Neil Johnson, left, and Jacqueline Montoya watch after Pioche was named the winner of the cook-off at the Northwest New Mexico Local Food Summit on July 15 in Orchard Park in downtown Farmington.

"I thought I was going to lose this year," Pioche said, referring to the stiff competition he faced from the other entrants, Neil Johnson and Jacqueline Montoya. "The food was really good this year."

All three chefs started with the same basic ingredients — lamb chops, quail eggs and honey — and were permitted to purchase two other local ingredients from the produce vendors at the Makers Market, in addition to using whatever local spices, oils or other ingredients they brought with them.

Johnson relied on his Louisiana roots by whipping up a lamb étouffée dish served over rice, of course, while Montoya cooked her lamb chops in a pan and served them with a mix of potatoes, carrots, bell peppers and stewed apricots. The result was three hearty, distinct dishes that showcased the imagination of the three chefs.

Chef Neil Johnson puts the final touches on his lamb etouffee dish before presenting plates to the judges during a cook-off on July 16 in Orchard Plaza in downtown Farmington.

Pioche said he loved the variety of tastes and textures featured in the three dishes, but he was more pleased with the feeling of camaraderie the event inspired.

"I love the feeling of community," he said. "I love coming together."

New Mexico State University extension agent Bonnie Hopkins, one of the organizers of the summit, kept a close eye on the three chefs during their preparations, admiring their technique. She counted the cook-off as a big success.

"I'm just thrilled to have two new chefs (as participants) and a female chef," she said. "All the dishes are so unique and representative of the individual chefs."

Hopkins said she believes this year's summit has helped generate new momentum for the local food movement, which is now buoyed by several growers markets and the recent opening of the San Juan College Harvest Food Hub & Kitchen just south of downtown.

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Chefs works on their dishes during the Northwest New Mexico Local Food Summit cook-off on July 15 in Orchard Plaza in downtown Farmington.

"We're moving toward new goals, and bigger and better things," she said.

As he accepted congratulations from his fellow chefs after being proclaimed the winner by the panel of four judges, Pioche left little doubt when asked if he would be back for next year's cook-off in a bid to rack up a three-peat.

Chef Justin Pioche prepares some ingredients for his Navajo-inspired lamb dish during the Northwest New Mexico Local Food Summit cook-off July 15 in Orchard Plaza in downtown Farmington.

"Oh, yeah," he said emphatically.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription.