The Western PA Lamb Cook-Off Returns in September
With a new location and more vendors, the popular lamb festival will be bigger than it’s ever been.
photos by hal b klein
The Western PA Lamb Cook-Off, popularly known as Lamb Fest, will return for a third year on September 29. This time, it is taking over an entire block of the Strip District. The event, produced by TABLE Magazine publisher Christina French in partnership with Elysian Fields Pure Bred Lamb, is expected to draw upward of 1,000 people, an uptick from the 500 and 800 people who attended previous Lamb Fests, which were held outside Ace Hotel in East Liberty.
“We wanted to be able to expand our footprint and get creative with the production elements. Getting bigger is central to making this regionally known, even nationally known, event,” says French.
At the heart of the event is a 10-team culinary competition featuring more than 30 of Pittsburgh’s most notable chefs, as well as a few out of town guests. Returning this year are the two-time champions “Most Hated Players,” Roger Li (Umami, Ki Ramen, Ki Pollo), Derek Burnell (Umami, Round Corner Cantina) and Dan Kern (1201 Kitchen, Bird, Noosa; Erie). Justin Severino, as part of the “Italian Team,” with Michele Savoia (Dish Osteria), Sam DiBattista (Vivo), Domenic Branduzzi (Piccolo Forno, Ki Ramen) and Stephen Felder (Stagioni), faces off against current and former employees Danielle Felix (Lunchbox), Nate Hobart (Morcilla), Zach Behm (Larder) and Brian Wiltrout (Salty Pork Bits).
Those chefs are joined by a team of — newcomers Veda Sankaran (Jalsa by Veda), Itha Cao (The Hungry Cao), Leila Khalil (Khalil’s) and Keyla Nogueira (Casa Brazil) —who aim, along with repeat contenders such as Kristen Butterworth (Nemacolin), Julio Peraza (fl.2) and Bethany Zozula (Whitfield) to win acclaim as the victor of People’s Choice award or crowned champion by a panel of judges (on which I have served).
New this year is expanded bar program highlighting Strip District alcohol businesses such as distilleries Wigle, Maggie’s Farm and Kingfly Spirits, beer from Cinderlands Beer Co. and cocktails from Bar Marco, plus entertainment from the DJ team Nicole Battle and Jarrett Tebbets.
Why a lamb cook-off? “Lamb is rooted in this region. The environment allows for the best growing conditions. And that’s something that’s respected worldwide,” says French.
That’s not an understatement. Jamison Farm in Latrobe, run by John and Sukey Jamison, is prized by renowned chefs such as Dan Barber (Blue Hill, Blue Hill at Stone Barns) and Steven Satterfield (Miller Union, Atlanta), and Julia Child used to have the Jamisons deliver lamb to her in California. Elysian Fields Pure Bred Lamb, which adheres to owner Keith Martin’s holistic approach to animal husbandry, counts Thomas Keller (The French Laundry, Per Se, Ad Hoc and more) a partner. French says the partnership with Elysian Fields, now in its second year, is instrumental in the growth of the event, calling them “true ambassadors for the quality of lamb.”
Tickets are $65 ($25 for kids under 13) and include unlimited tastings from the competing teams as well as some local vendors. V.I.P. tickets are $100 and include the tasting as well as free parking, shorter drink lines for VIP-only bars, exclusive access to the Kingfly Spirits VIP “Speakeasy,” a complimentary welcome cocktail at Kingfly, exclusive access to the outdoor VIP patio and judges area, and a VIP swag bag.