WHITEFISH – In the woods north of U.S. Highway 40, in a kitchen painted lime green and eggplant purple, chef Anna Malpeli takes a break to explain how she comes up with her concoctions.
“Sometimes, when I can’t fall asleep at night, I think about what I can make,” the owner of The Simple Chef said. One restless night resulted in a dessert: almond Kahlua moose cake. It’s now served at Pescado Blanco in Whitefish. The mind of a chef never stops ticking. Along with spur-of-the-moment ideas, she peruses cookbooks and adds her own touch to family recipes to create unexpected flavors.
Malpeli, 31, is just one of 28 chefs who will be on hand at the 20th Annual Taste of Whitefish, a town well known for its fine cuisine and glut of talented chefs. The Taste draws hundreds of people to the O’Shaughnessy Center to sample the gastronomic offerings of local restaurants. The proceeds, which are expected to bring in about $9,000, go to the Whitefish Visitor and Information Center.
“Without it, we would have to have to find a different funding source,” Whitefish Chamber of Commerce President Sheila Bowen said. Yet the Taste consistently sells out and chefs embrace both the chance to promote their respective businesses and give back to the chamber for one night. This year, the theme is “Whitefish Goes to the Movies” and Bowen said, “We can’t even begin to know what to expect.”
A week prior to the Taste, neither could Malpeli, who was baking blue cheese crisps for a party she would cater that upcoming weekend. She hadn’t yet taken a breather to think about the following week’s dishes (the Taste is this Thursday), which is normal in the busy summer months that often require 14-hour days, seven days a week.
She did, however, list some possibilities: Mexican mud cake, cinnamon pecan bread pudding with brandy caramel sauce, Alaskan king crab nachos and sugar bacon. She shared the sugar bacon, and for someone who thought bacon couldn’t possibly taste better, the glazed, bite-sized morsels convinced him otherwise.
Malpeli customizes her menus to her clients’ needs. She buys mostly local produce, is an hors d’oeuvres specialist (although she does cook full dinners) and is big into healthy eating – the sugar bacon constituting an exception. “My food is very unique, intense and flavorful.” And, like other chefs at the Taste, people want to talk about her food and her business throughout the evening. Conversely, she will have two people working with her at the Taste, when about 650 people are likely to file past her booth.
In some ways the Taste is the storm before the calm for local chefs. Malpeli planned on working several days to prepare up to nine dishes. Then, as winter approaches, caterers and restaurants see a lull until the holiday season picks up. The event once awarded the chefs who had the best food. Hanging on her wall Malpeli has three plaques she won in previous years. The competition portion is now defunct and the Taste has become more about camaraderie between cooks than rivalries.
Bowen said the presentations at the Taste are almost as good as the food. “The caterers,” she said, “for the most part, always do a display that pretty much says, ‘take me for your next event.’”
And for Bowen, the displays must make do, because she’s so busy the night of the event she doesn’t get to enjoy the food. “Since I work it, it’s so disappointing,” she said. “I’ve never actually eaten at the Taste of Whitefish.”