The Region is filled with talented culinary professionals, innovative restaurants and people who appreciate delicious food.
We'll be focusing on some of the great chefs of the area when we present our first South Shore Chefs of Steel competition on Sept. 21 at Bulldog Park in Crown Point.
In the spotlight will be seven chefs who will compete in a cooking contest using mystery ingredients to create a winning dish. Chef participants will be Brian Rance of Byway Brewing in Hammond; James Cannon of One13North in Crown Point; Aaron Kujawa of Lincoln Flats in Valparaiso; Chris Pavlou of Radius in Valparaiso; Angela McCrovitz of Captain's House in Gary's Miller neighborhood; Nicole Bissonnette of Bartlett's Fish Camp in Michigan City; and John Moultrie of Bistro on the Greens in LaPorte.
They'll be judged by three of the Region's esteemed food professionals. Rating the competing judges will be Tammy Pham, chef/owner of Asparagus in Merrillville and Siam Marina in Tinley Park, Illinois; Brent Brashier, co-owner and chief barbecue officer of Doc's Smokehouse and Craft Bar in Dyer; and Benito Gamba of Gamba's Ristorante in Merrillville.
Tammy Pham is the owner/chef of Asparagus in Merrillville and Siam Marina in Tinley Park. Pham owns the eateries with her husband, Sapion "Sam" Chung.
Pham has been dedicated to bringing her unique spin on Thai and other Asian cuisines to diners throughout the Region and Chicagoland for 25 years. Her Siam Marina eatery opened in 1994 on Sibley Boulevard in Calumet City. Asparagus debuted on the scene in 2007.
At Siam Marina and Asparagus, Pham features a variety of dishes with Thai, Vietnamese and other Asian touches. The chef, whose background is in electrical engineering, pays attention to details when creating recipes. She recently released her first sauce — the Sassy Sweet & Sour Sauce — produced by Chef Tammy's Kitchen.
While Pham regularly participates in various festivals and offers food demonstrations, she said she hasn't judged cooking competitions in the past. She's looking forward to participating as a judge in the Chefs of Steel contest.
"I feel excited to be a judge for the contest since this is my first time judging any culinary competition. Before this, the only people I judged were my employees and my son," Pham said.
"Although I have been asked many times, I decided to put my business first before I did anything outside of the restaurant," Pham said, about her role as a judge.
At her restaurants, Pham offers a variety of dishes, including a good selection of seafood, noodle and rice recipes, chicken, vegetarian options and other items.
When judging other chef's creations, Pham said she'll be seeking certain key elements.
"I'll look not only for the satisfying taste and exquisite presentation, but also the passion that drives each chef to throw pieces of their heart into their dishes. If the love for cooking is not there, then neither is the food."
Barbecue is a sacred word to Brent Brashier. Brashier is the co-owner and chief barbecue officer of Doc's Smokehouse & Craft Bar, which has locations in Dyer, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Mokena, Illinois. A fourth Doc's is scheduled to open in November in Madison, Wisconsin.
Doc's in Dyer was the first location of the popular Region barbecue haven. It debuted in 2014. Brashier and co-owner Dr. Himanshu Doshi continue to bring the full barbecue experience to diners at Doc's.
Brashier honed his culinary talents largely in Texas and Alabama. Due to various business responsibilities, Brashier said he isn't in the kitchen as much as he was when the restaurant first opened. But diners occasionally will find him firing up the grills at the eateries.
Brashier said he's long had a passion for barbecue. The food professional has been in restaurant management for nearly 30 years.
Among specialties offered at Doc's are everything from brisket and pulled pork to sausage, turkey and ribs.
Brashier said he's "super excited" to be a judge for the Chefs of Steel contest.
He said he knows some of the chefs on a professional basis and is aware of what some of them do in their restaurants.
"I know they're going to put out some fantastic food," Brashier said. The nature of competition, Brashier said, automatically calls for people "bringing it to the next level."
"Competition is always a great thing. You're going to see everyone's best efforts," he said.
Brashier said he's judged many barbecue and chili contests but has never had the opportunity to judge a contest where there will be such a "broad spectrum" of food.
Brashier said what he'll be looking for while judging will be presentation, first of all, and then, of course, flavor.
"To knock it out of the park, presentation is important. You eat with your eyes first."
For Benito Gamba, the restaurant business is a real family affair.
Gamba, known affectionately as "Benny" to friends and dedicated customers, is the owner of Gamba Ristorante in Merrillville. He operates the restaurant with his wife and daughters.
The restaurant, established in 2006, focuses on Northern Italian cuisine with some dishes from other Italian regions also in the spotlight.
"At Gamba's, we do things in a really simple way but with lots of love and passion," Gamba said, in a past interview.
The restaurant is housed in a dome-shaped building and features an attractive setting as well as an outdoor courtyard and other special areas such as the banquet room and the wine room.
It's always been important for Gamba and his family to welcome guests to their restaurant in a warm way. The restaurateur believes in excellent customer relations. One will often find him on the premises of the restaurant ready to greet diners and converse about everything from the events of their day to menu details. Supreme hospitality is in operation at Gamba's on a daily basis.
Gamba said he's honored to be a judge for Chefs of Steel and always thrilled to be a part of a culinary event.
"When we talk about food and wine (and other ingredients) I'm always very intrigued about participating," he said.
"And it's always nice to see new talent and the creativity they put in."
While Gamba said this will be his first judging stint for an actual contest, he said he's always "judging" on a daily basis at his restaurant. He's attuned and careful about what his team produces at Gamba's and always makes sure it's their best.
On Gamba's menu, guests will find a variety of dishes, including Sicilian braised lamb, risotto con funghi, Dover sole, grilled veal tenderloin and much more.
Gamba said when he judges the dishes for the contest he'll be looking for a few things.
"First, I'll be looking at the time of year and the season we're dealing with. And I like things that are simple but things that have quality and freshness."
His advice to the contestants: "Keep it simple and genuine."