Cork Fire Kitchen repeats as champion of So-Cal Chef Open

Dennis Jamison takes a bite of one of the offerings during the 12th annual So-Cal Chef Open at Pechanga Resort Casino, Aug. 26. The event benefits the Oak Grove Center which provides schooling a residence for children with emotional, behavioral and educational challenges including autism. Shane Gibson photo

Who knew a country-style pork pate could be so good?

The esteemed judges at the 12th annual So-Cal Chef Open certainly thought the offering from Temecula Creek Inn’s Cork Fire Kitchen was better than all the rest when the restaurant was awarded the Pinnacle Award Monday, Aug. 26, at Pechanga Resort Casino’s Summit Room.

Chef de Cuisine Sterling King and Chef Matthew Steffen’s country-style pork pate with sourdough crostini, housemade grain mustard, pickled tiny vegetables, cornichons, nasturtium and pistachios ensured the restaurant would win the coveted prize for the second year in a row.

“I think what made it really good was all of the vegetables that they had on it, they were pickled from their garden, but then they had a sourdough too, I mean that just blew my mind,” lead judge and Chef Leah Di Bernardo from E.A.T. Temecula said. “All those components and the way they came together – like I couldn’t stop eating the plate and I normally only take one bite – but I was just mesmerized.”

Coming in second was K/C Catering Company with a vegan ceviche on a yellow corn tostada, with Tapatio olive oil, cilantro foam, grapefruit margarita ice and micro herbs.

“So, I get this plate, and they have this beautiful chili oil around it,” Di Bernardo said. “And then it has a foam and it’s cilantro, and I’m tasting it and then they did a thing with the dry ice with cauliflower and it kind of just crumbled. So that broke the heat. And then I noticed a mushroom and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is plant ceviche.’ So, it was a surprise, it was like opening a box at Christmas and you’re like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know I was going to get this.’ And it all worked so perfectly.”

Chef Justin Mabunay with Highgate Senior Living Temecula took third prize with a pork belly confit, with a Dr Pepper demiglaze, a togarashi-spiced potato galette, succotash of fava beans and roasted white corn on the bottom.

“He had this beautiful braised pork belly in Dr Pepper,” Di Bernardo said. “I love anyone who is using hyper fresh ingredients, and you bring all those flavors together you can’t miss.”

The Chef’s Grille and Chef Martin Corso came in third place in the People’s Choice portion of the event, finishing second was New Birth Heart and Soul Cafe and winning the People’s Choice award was Chef Pete Lent with Pete’s Firehouse BBQ with smoked barbecue tri-tip, mac ‘n’ cheese with bacon and fire-roasted street corn.

More than 600 people attended this year’s event that serves as the second half of a daylong fundraiser benefiting the Oak Grove Center, a nonprofit, residential educational and treatment center for children with psychological, emotional, behavioral problems and special needs in Murrieta.

The proceeds from the chef competition will go to the vocational and culinary programs at the school.

Earlier in the day, more than 100 golfers participated in a golf tournament that also benefited the school.

Jeff Pack can be reached by email at