‘It’s community building.’ How the Golden Basket competition helps local economy

The Golden Basket competition has always been a fun, competitive way to showcase local culinary talent, but this year, event organizers have taken “local” to a new level.

Originally held at just the Boalsburg Farmers Market, the Golden Basket competition now includes four farmers market “qualifiers,” with the winner of each moving on to the finals in State College starting at 4:30 p.m. Saturday in Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza. Each chef gets a $100 budget to buy all the ingredients they need from market vendors and prepare 100 tastes of a dish to share with farmers market-goers, who judge the dishes.

Co-organizer Travis Lesser, who runs local food hub Appalachian Food Works, said the competition had been going for a few years and “then it kind of fell off the wayside.”

Approached about organizing a local food event, Lesser visited his friend Bob Ricketts, who owns Fasta & Ravioli and manages the North Atherton Farmers Market. Ricketts said he wanted to bring back the Golden Basket competition, and the two put their heads together, coming up with a grand plan to connect local farmers and food vendors with local chefs and — of course — local consumers.

“It’s community building,” Lesser said. “That’s really what this is all about, and that’s what the event’s about — bringing the farmers together and the chefs together, and showing ... the community that we have world-class stuff here in ... Centre County.”

Flavia Barger, of Brazilian Munchies food truck, and Shane Orndorf, of Shy Bear Brewing in Lewistown, won their qualifiers at the North Atherton Street and Boalsburg farmers markets earlier this week.

“That was the idea behind doing these qualifiers ... which was to increase the foot traffic at the farmers markets,” Lesser said.

This year, he said, they decided on four markets but he hopes to expand that scope next year.

At the Pine Grove Mills Farmers Market on Thursday, competing chefs passed out tastes of their prepared dishes to market-goers.

Chef Eric Bucior and his sous-chef Alex Conen, from Federal Taphouse, said the local produce in season informed their choice to make wine-poached pear, topped with a cucamelon, a citrus-flavored cucumber that looks like a tiny watermelon.

Meanwhile, chef Jeremiah McClenahan, from Fasta & Ravioli, said he wanted to make bacon in his pasta dish, so he smoked some local pork and used croissants to give his dish “a little contrast, a little buttery flavor.”

Chef Harrison Schailey, a previous winner of the Golden Basket finals, was more focused on the walkability of his dish, jokingly calling it the “farmers market fusion tostada.” He used local pork braised in spices and topped it with a corn tomato relish. “The idea was: get it right here, chop it right up, then put it on the tostada,” he said. He won the qualifier Thursday.

The farmers market tostada by chef Harrison Schailey of Harrison’s Wine Grill & Catering, which won the preliminary round of the Golden Basket Chef Competition at the Pine Grove Mills Farmers Market on Thursday. Abby Drey

Jeni Engle, who works at the Downtown State College Improvement District, which is sponsoring the event, said she likes the competitive and local aspects.

“I love it, I think it’s a great way to bring the community together,” she said. “I think it’s a really excellent way to get the local fare involved, support the local farmers, support the local employees ... they get to really shine at what they do, and one thing we like to do around this area is eat.”

The four winning chefs from each competition will face off in a “Chopped”-style contest Saturday, where they will receive a box with ingredients they haven’t seen beforehand and have 40 minutes to prepare a starter and entree dish. Judges Maggie Anderson, editor of Provisions Magazine, local chef Mark Johnson and resident Bill Asbury, who is Kansas City Barbecue Society-certified, will have 10 minutes to taste the dishes and determine the winner.

The ticketed event includes a spread of locally sourced food from local businesses, including cabbage dumplings and cold brew from Webster’s Bookstore and Cafe, brisket sliders from Federal Taphouse, ratatouille from Spats at the Grill, kombucha from Mount NitaNee Kombucha, pretzels from Gemelli Bakers, popcorn from Revival Kitchen and beer for sale from Elk Creek Cafe.

There will also be a cooking demonstration from the Happy Valley Chef, and musical entertainment from three local musical acts — Donny Burns and Nick Stahlman from Donny Burns & the 3rd Degree, William Ryan and Matt Jacobs.

Jeremiah McClenahan from Fasta & Ravioli Co. serves up some pasta with sauce, croissant and bacon bits at the preliminary round of the Golden Basket Chef Competition at the Pine Grove Mills Farmers Market on Thursday. Abby Drey

Lesser said it’s important to showcase local businesses, farmers and chefs in an event like this because they’re becoming increasingly threatened by large corporations and chains.

“I understand the importance of small business. I also have a very negative view of big box stores and I know what they do to a community and so in order to prevent that type of impact from these big box stores it’s really important that these smaller business, especially agriculture businesses ... are able to maintain a sustainable business,” said Lesser.

Mike Johnson, executive chef at Happy Dishes food trailer, said he was pleased to see the involvement of many small businesses in the Golden Basket event.

“I mean, you need more of this type thing ... to get people’s feedback of the restaurants themselves, what we have to offer here in the State College area, because I feel as though it’s not out there unless you’re a huge franchise,” he said. “So seeing small businesses do this, this is great, it helps the business itself, it helps the community.”

Said Lesser: “We’re all trying to do the same thing. We’re all trying to build up our local food ecosystem here, we’re trying to build up our farmers to give them a meaningful, sustainable living.”

For more information on the competition and to buy tickets, visit

Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.