By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
MEREDITH — The Taste of the Lakes Region is an unusual opportunity for people to sample the creations of some of the area's best food companies. This year, the 27th episode of the annual fund raiser offers a particularly interesting wrinkle – the chance to taste the food of a chef who recently won the NH Food Bank's Steel Chef competition, and who will soon be featured on a Food Network reality cooking show.
Tony Bomba, who grew up in Lincoln, knew that he wanted to be a chef from a young age, and when he was in high school, he took advantage of a program that allowed him to intern with professionals. After high school, he started a culinary program but realized that he already knew everything in the lessons. So, he decided to begin his career right then and there.
"I'm not a behind-the-textbooks kind of guy," he said. He got a job as a line cook at Foster's Boiler Room in Plymouth, one of the properties in the Common Man Family of Restaurants, and within a year was wearing a jacket with the word "chef" on it. Bomba, now 24, has now been a Common Man chef for the past six years, and for a year and a half has been the head chef at Lago in Meredith.
On March 26, Bomba's food will be among the others served to guests at the Taste of the Lakes Region, held from 4 to 6:30 p.m. in Church Landing in Meredith. Tickets are $30 per person, and proceeds will benefit the Altrusa International of Laconia club's charitable efforts, which include literacy projects and scholarships.
Bomba is an ascending young chef. The Common Man holds its own internal cooking competitions, fashioned after the Iron Chef television show that started in Japan and has since been replicated in the United States. He's a five-time champion of his company's tournament. So, when he was asked to join the Steel Chef event, held on March 6 in Manchester, he readily agreed.
"I'm all for it, it's good to get your name out there. I was glad to do it," he said. Many chefs from around the state applied, and Bomba was one of four finalists asked to take to the stage for a live cooking event, hosted by celebrity chef Robert Irvine and in front of a live audience measured in the hundreds.
The surprise challenge was to create a dish using salmon, duck and Captain Crunch cereal. The contestants had to break down both the fish and the bird, had only two burners to cook with, and had to plate their dish 20 minutes after the word "Go!" Bomba won, on the strength of a plate that contained pan-seared duck and salmon, served over a risotto flavored with the cereal, cauliflower and mushrooms, and he tied everything together with an orange and asparagus beurre blanc.
As it turned out, Bomba had an advantage going into the event, because it turned out to be similar to the ingredients he was challenged to combine during a taping of "Guy's Grocery Games," a reality television show hosted by Guy Fieri on the Food Network – Bomba said the episode featuring his performance will be broadcast on April 30.
Bomba works in the Common Man's Italian restaurant, and comes from an Italian family. He sees that adjective as a beginning point, rather than a confining definition. Like the early explorers and traders of the great Mediterranean peninsula, he is curious about the flavors and products available from around the world, and he sees Lago as more than a place for pasta and marinara. Instead, he wants the menu to draw inspiration from the travels of Marco Polo.
"My style is very much not Italian," said Bomba. "I grew up Italian, I'm sick of cooking Italian," he said. He describes his favorite cooking as "fusion-confusion" and "culinarchy" – a collision of "culinary" and "anarchy." It's a playful, experimental approach to providing approachable food, best exemplified by the "Late Night" menu presented to bar patrons after the main dinner service at Lago. It includes spring rolls stuffed with apples, brie and sausage, and tacos filled with tuna tartare. When the restaurant rewrites its menu for the warm months, he expects such items to make an appearance on the regular dinner menu.
His daring is also on display when he creates specials. One of his favorites is a direct confrontation to conventional expectations. Could an Italian restaurant serve chicken and waffles, and get away with it? The answer is yes, and yes. Bomba serves Cornish game hen over Amaretto-infused waffles with wilted Italian greens, grilled peaches, and drizzled with a sauce of Gran Maniere and local maple syrup. His diners are up to the challenge, as his version of chicken and waffles has sold out every time he's offered it.
Like the Steel Chef event, Bomba sees participating in such events as both a professional opportunity and responsibility. Not only do participants in the Taste of the Lakes Region donate their time for the event, they also cover the cost of the product they're serving, and all for no material reward.
"I'm all for it. It's good to get your name out there. I was glad to do it," he said about the Steel Chef event. "They raised a bunch of money for the food bank, which was the whole point of it."
Because of the willingness of people like Bomba to donate their talents to put on such an event, the food bank will likely be able to provide a million meals more than it would otherwise. Nancy Mellitt, director of development for the NH Food Bank, said the organization can provide two meals for every dollar raised. Last year's event attracted 380 guests and raised $290,000. While she is still totaling this year's figure, but the attendance figure of 660 leads her to believe that this year's proceeds will exceed last year's by a healthy margin.
To Bomba, having a hand in such an effort is part of the job description, and it's why he's willing to lend his time and talents to the Taste of the Lakes Region.
"Being a restaurant, or any business inside a community, people in that community come in and spend their money with you. You, whether you know it or not, have a responsibility to give back to that community and keep the cycle going."
For more information about the Taste of the Lakes Region, visit www.altrusalaconia.org.
Tony Bomba is head chef at Lago in Meredith, one of the restaurants participating in the Taste of the Lakes Region on March 26 (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun).
Bomba is congratulated by celebrity chef Robert Irvine for winning the NH Food Bank's Steel Chef competition on March 6. (Courtesy photo)
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