Chef Collin Crannell prepares his Korbuta pork cheeks for the downtown Santa Monica Peach-Off cooking competition. Crannell is head chief at The Lobster restaurant. (photo by Michelle Terris)

DOWNTOWN — The air smells alternately sweet like a cobbler and fishy, changing with the wind. Clanging, chopping and sizzling form a symphony with the jazz stylings of a saxophone player on the sidewalk. Smoke dances out of the pans and into the atmosphere. Crowds amble by, watching the scene unfold or fixing their eyes on the surrounding booths of fresh fruit and flowers.

So begins the first Peach-Off, an “Iron Chef” like competition where three chefs from local restaurants were charged with making an appetizer, an entree and a dessert all featuring peach as an ingredient. It was held at the Downtown Santa Monica Farmers Market on Wednesday morning.

The dishes were judged by three local food-media personalities, and the winner from each category was given a crystal peach. With a Peche Poche salad of peach, endive, arugula, candied walnuts and blue cheese in a red wine vinaigrette, Fraiche, a French and Italian restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard, won the best appetizer prize. Locanda del Lago, an Italian restaurant on Arizona Avenue, took best entrée for a Chilean Sea Bass cooked cartoccio-style, meaning in an Italian baking paper. Vanilla scented peaches with brioche and Grand Marnier sabayon custard from The Lobster, a seafood restaurant on Ocean Avenue, won the best dessert award.

“I do like to use peaches,” said Collin Crannell, the head chef from The Lobster. “It’s kind of a short season, but I do like to use peaches a lot with something spicy or with dessert.”

The idea for the competition was born from the Bayside District Corporation, the public-private company that manages Downtown Santa Monica for City Hall, as a way to promote the connection between the Famers’ Market and the community and to promote seasonal fruit, said Kathleen Rawson, the executive director of Bayside.

“We’re really hoping to highlight that the Farmers’ Market is a wonderful community event and that the restaurants are part of our community and that they use the Farmers’ Market just like residents do on a regular basis,” Rawson said.

Rawson was master of ceremonies as the chefs presented their dishes to the judges. The morning started with an introduction from Rawson and Laura Avery, the Farmers’ Market supervisor. The chefs then presented their dishes for judges to taste and comment on.

“I just thought it was a beautiful dish, and it became even more beautiful when it was opened up,” said judge Hadley Tomecki from Grub Street LA after tasting Lago’s winning entrée, which was wrapped in the baking paper and opened in front of the judges to release the strong peach scent.

In addition to explaining their dishes before giving them to the judges, the chefs answered questions from spectators about their methods and ingredients as they were cooking.

Spectators said they enjoyed the competition and wished they could have tasted the delicious-looking food. They could get the opportunity if they would like, as each dish from Wednesday’s competition will be featured on the menus of the restaurants throughout July.

Karen Lavoie and Christine Casstevens came out from the South Bay to shop at the Famers’ Market on Wednesday and were happily surprised.

“I think it’s great,” Lavoie said. “I think it’s great because it’s not often you get to hear from the chef himself.”

The Peach-Off was the first of frequent cooking competitions at the Farmers’ Market featuring seasonal fruits and vegetables, Rawson said. When and how frequent future events will be is pending evaluation of the Peach-Off.

“People love the idea of something happening right here,” Rawson said. “And everybody loves a good competition.”

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