A Clash of the Tailgaters 

click to enlarge Chef’s Academy graduate Cole Smalley prepares grilled chicken skewers at a previous Clash of the Tailgaters.
  • Chef’s Academy graduate Cole Smalley prepares grilled chicken skewers at a previous Clash of the Tailgaters.

It was the beginning of football season three years ago, and Jason Anderson, then an instructor at The Chef's Academy (the culinary division of Harrison College), along with some of his students, decided to put together a tailgating competition. The school was quickly on board, and it gave the students an opportunity to get hands-on experience cooking for a large crowd. And thus, the first Clash of the Tailgaters, a battle to create the best tailgate food, was born.

Since the first battle, Gleaners Food Bank has come on board as the battle's non-profit beneficiary; to date, $15,000 has been raised through the event to help provide food for families in need. The battle has also expanded to include restaurant teams battling for supremacy in a separate category alongside the students - making for 65 competitors in total divided into teams of two or three persons. 14 West, Iozzo's Garden of Italy, the Indiana School Nutrition Association and St. Elmo Steak House are among the ten restaurant teams.

This year's battle, slated for Friday, Sept. 14 in the parking lot of The Chef's Academy (644 E. Washington St.), could be the biggest yet, with organizers predicting 750 people in attendance.

"There's no simpler act of compassion and kindness than providing food to the hungry," explains Jayson Boyles, National Division president for The Chef's Academy, which has locations in Indianapolis and Raleigh, N.C. He has long been a supporter of food banks, and is proud of the way The Challenge connects a creative student showcase with tangible community involvement. "We love this event because it engages the student's creativity and gives them the instant gratification of seeing someone respond to what they've made."

The Clash was a success from the beginning. "The first event, we thought we might have 100-150 people show up, and we had 300 people," says Boyles, who recalls the memory of scrambling to serve the extra numbers.

Adding restaurants to the event after its inaugural year not only raised the fundraising bar by getting more involved in helping the hungry, but also gave the students an opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the best chefs in the city, an experience that can't be gained in the classroom.

One of the chef competitors, Joshua Horrigan, was a student at the first Tailgate Challenge when he won second place with his from-scratch corndogs, using his own casings and stone-ground Indiana corn for the batter. Now a graduate, he works for the school handling public relations and student career placement at both campuses, as well as running a restaurant consulting business. His urban farm, Annabelle's Garden, sells at Broad Ripple Farmer's Market and supplies local restaurants like Recess and Black Market with produce.

This year, Horrigan, with the assistance of students Nick Glaspie and Steven Phares, plans to show off Indiana's growing season by including pickled vegetables and other vegetarian options, cycling through several dishes to highlight the abundance and diversity of local food. But while he loves the creativity of the competition, his favorite part is watching the students understand the importance of philanthropy.

"Getting the students to understand that you need to volunteer in your job as a chef," Horrigan says. "They often just think about how much money they'll get paid doing a job, when it's not always about that, it's about the fact that we're raising a lot of money for people that need it. They don't really get it until the end of the event, when they see the check given to the food bank. Prior to that, it's all about winning a prize - but then at the end, I love watching them get what it's really about."

For a minimum donation of $10, attendees will sample offerings from all of the Tailgate Challenge competitors, as well as purchase $5 beers from Sun King brewery. Local celebrities such as the Indianapolis Colts Cheerleaders, Indy Style host Andi Houser, Tom Zupancic and Jimmy "Mad Dog" Matis will be in attendance.

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