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One of the perks of eating and writing about it is that occasionally someone taps you to do something fabulous like judge what I like to call Iron Chef Fort Worth.

Cookin’ with Kids Who Care, now in its 12th year, is the mother of all foodie events in town: Attendees get to sample fare from some of Fort Worth’s most celebrated local restaurants, and the competition quotient is high. Each two-person team – pros teamed with celebrities, amateurs with their friends – gets a mystery box of food, courtesy of Ben E. Keith Company, and two Bunsen burners apiece. The teams have 45 minutes to dazzle the, ahem, distinguished food expert judges. All of the money raised via admission and a corresponding silent and live auction goes to Kids Who Care, a nonprofit musical theater troupe. The event, Kids Who Care’s largest fundraiser, helps provide scholarships for children whose families cannot afford the troupe’s monthly tuition.

The good news: At the most recent event, nobody set anything on fire, which was especially important since the venue was the River Ranch in the Stockyards — the place is just one big wooden box. And there were no chef fistfights or even grumblings among the stars onboard: Reata Restaurant’s Juan Rodriguez; “Outlaw Chef” Terry Chandler of Fred’s Texas Café; Gabe Ochoa, formerly of Kalamatas Mediterranean Cuisine and The Vault Mediterranean and now at the Ridglea Country Club; Anthony Felli from Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse; Lou Lambert from Lambert’s Steaks, Seafood & Whiskey; Mario Jasso from both El Paseo and Tres Joses Mexican Restaurant; Frederic Angevin all the way from the Four Seasons at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport; The Classic Café’s Charles Youts; Central Market’s Denise Shavandy; and Deb Cantrell from the nonprofit organization Cuisine for Healing.

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This year’s head judge, Jon Bonnell of Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine, was part of the team that won the event several times in previous years. He was joined on the judges’ panel by Star-Telegram food critic Amy Culbertson, former Star-T scribe Mary Rogers, me, and the lucky guy who bought himself the judging gig during an auction last year.

The mystery boxes were all the same: pork tenderloin, shrimp, potatoes, tomatoes, asparagus, chocolate, strawberries, oranges, cream, and assorted spices. The plates arrived to us judges anonymously. However, I’d snuck a few peeks during cooking, and I knew that Lambert was responsible for the outrageously, sumptuously beautiful lemon curd, and that Felli was the one passin’ out the sangria. And who but Chandler would serve an apple pan-dowdy in a cast-iron skillet? All of the meat began to taste the same after a minute or two so you were really looking at presentation and clever uses of ingredients.

Some chefs even tried to bribe us judges. (And I don’t mean to be telling tales outta school, but someone’s got a brand-new kitchen knife!) Some used their charm and wily ways. (Lambert passed around some wine, a very nice vintage, according to Bonnell.)

The Iron Chef Fort Worth winner this year was dark horse Gabe Ochoa, who’s been in as many kitchens as Kenmore but is still little known. Ochoa cooked with “Notable Texan” Jody Ulich from the Arts Council of Fort Worth and Tarrant County. Their elegant dish of pork tenderloin cooked in a simple sauce with carved potato “mushrooms” was paired with a chocolate/mint/cardamom mousse. Ochoa beat out the flamboyant Chandler and young gun Rodriguez, who actually participated in the real Iron Chef contest a few years back.

Before the cooking started, Misti, who is a client of Samaritan House, spoke about how Kids Who Care has helped her daughter. Misti, a single mom who is HIV positive, does not have money to cover fees or travel costs associated with the group’s performances. The Kids Who Care “angels,” she said, have opened up a world of opportunity for her daughter and given her a place to belong.

Alicia Henson seconded that. The 18-year-old has been performing in the company for half her life and said that the organization skills she’s gained have provided a good foundation for college this fall.

“No matter who you are, you’ll find a place here,” she said.

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