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Many chefs are lured to Sonoma County by the year-round growing season, the fresh seafood and poultry, and the wide array of wine varietals that can be paired with everything from Dungeness crab to duck.

So when the Sonoma Steel Chef competition gets under way this Saturday at the Taste of Sonoma, chances are that the four chefs will have no problem turning a bag of local, mystery ingredients into something delicious, paired with wine.

“The cool thing about this event . . . is that the pantry is stocked, so there’s more than you can possibly use,” said Jack Mitchell of Jack & Tony’s Restaurant and Wine Bar in Santa Rosa. “Being that it’s summertime in Sonoma County, there’s always interesting produce, seafood and meat, plus cheeses and bacon, which makes everything easier.”

Emceed by PBS’s “Check, Please” host Leslie Sbrocco and Food & Wine magazine Executive Wine Editor Ray Isle, the cooking contest lies at the heart of the tasting event, which draws local vintners, chefs and producers to MacMurray Estate Vineyards for the signature celebration of Sonoma Wine Country Weekend.

The chefs have just 30 minutes to come up with a few dishes that pair well with the wines, so they must fly into action immediately. The judges score them on creativity, wine pairing, presentation and taste.

“The wine pairing is hugely important,” said Honore Comfort, co-executive director of Sonoma Wine Country Weekend. “There are specific wines that they are pairing with, and it’s usually one white and one red.”

In the first round, Mitchell will compete against David Bush, the former chef at St. Francis Winery who is opening his first restaurant on the Sonoma Plaza next month.

During the second round, Chef Peter Brown of the Jimtown Store in Healdsburg will compete against Jake Ameral, a sous chef at Zazu Kitchen + Farm in Sebastopol.

We checked in with each contestant to find out more about their cooking styles, their restaurants and overall strategy for the contest:

Jake Ameral

Although he is only 26, Ameral has been working in restaurants for the past 10 years, from John Ash & Co. and Petite Syrah to The Spinster Sisters in Santa Rosa.

He is particularly fond of cooking seafood and enjoys blending Italian techniques with Asian flavors, or vice versa. His strategy in the contest will be to cook everything perfectly and not try to reinvent the wheel.

“I want to keep it simple,” he said. “I just want to show people that I can execute really good food.”

Peter Brown

Brown grew up in Honolulu, then went straight to New York to cook, enrolling in the Natural Gourmet Cookery School. In 2001, he moved to Sonoma County and got a job in the kitchen of Santi in Geyserville, right after it opened.

Brown has also worked for famed restaurateur Roy Yamaguchi in New York, and at Barndiva, Willi’s Seafood and Les Mars Hotel in Healdsburg.

Seven years ago, he joined the team at the Jimtown Store, overseeing the store’s popular line of spreads, the catering division and the cafe’s breakfast and lunch menus. He recently handed over the reins of the cafe to some new staff.

“We’re actually transitioning a little bit now,” he said. “We have brunch on Sundays, and you can come in and get eggs to order for breakfast every day (except Tuesday).”

From his Hawaiian roots, Brown developed a deep love of Asian flavors, but he also enjoys cooking simple Italian food and barbecuing on his Weber grill.

Brown plans to take a minimalist approach to the contest.

“I’m not into fussy, manipulative cooking,” he said. “I really like to use premium ingredients and let them speak for themselves.”

David Bush

Bush earned a lot of street cred at St. Francis Winery after his multi-course, food-and-wine pairing program garnered a “Best Restaurant” honor from OpenTable in 2013.

“That was my goal when I started there,” said Bush, who left the winery this spring to launch his own eatery, Oso, on the south side of the Sonoma Plaza.

The chef, who served as chef de cuisine for The Girl and the Gaucho in Glen Ellen and helped reopen it as The Fig Cafe, plans to serve small plates for sharing in the front of Oso and a five-course tasting menu in the rear.

Like most California chefs, Bush draws from a wide range of global cuisines, including the flavors of Asia and Mexico, Spain and France.

For the contest, Bush plans to have a general idea of where he wants to go with his dishes, but will let them develop along the way.

“I always try to do things that make sense, to me, for the flavor profile,” he said. “Once I get a knife in my hand and start doing what comes naturally to me, I’ll have fun.”

Jack Mitchell

As the only contestant who has competed in the Steel Chef Competition before, Mitchell comes to the contest with the benefit of experience.

“You don’t know what the ingredients are going to be, or who the judges are going to be,” he said. “So you just do your best.”

The chef cut his culinary teeth at the Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur and The Beach Chalet in San Francisco, then moved to Sonoma County 12 years ago to head up the former Sassafras restaurant in Santa Rosa.

Five years ago, Mitchell opened up Jack & Tony’s Restaurant and Whiskey Bar in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square, where he oversees one of the largest whiskey collections on the West Coast and produces two proprietary bourbons with help from Four Roses and Angel’s Envy distilleries of Kentucky.

“It’s more than a steakhouse but we don’t do a lot of multi-course things,” he said of his local, seasonal menu.

When he last competed in the Steel Chef contest, Mitchell also had to serve guests tastes of his food. This time around, he won’t have to worry about that.

“I’ll get a good night’s sleep and go in with an open mind,” he said. “I’ll walk in fresh.”

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com

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