The Food Network has not just made the culinary arts into television; it’s made them into competitions. Contestants in shows such as “Chopped,” “Cupcake Wars,” and “The Great Food Truck Race” use their brains, wits, basters, and whisks to win titles, bragging rights, and prizes.
I took part in a completely different kind of cooking contest during the last weekend in July in Manchester, Vermont: the 2017 Muddy Chef Challenge. There were prizes at the end for the best appetizer, tastiest main course, and most satisfying dessert, but it wasn’t on television and it had an ingredient no hit show has: Land Rovers.
Cooking And Driving
According to the event’s website, a group of Land Rover aficionados got together in 2008 and came up with the idea of combining off-roading and a vehicle-based gourmet cooking challenge.
“Over the course of three days, competitors will set up African Safari style campsites, experience challenging off-road and overland driving, take part in sporting field events (Falconry, Fly Fishing, Sporting Clay shooting, etc.) dress up for exclusive cocktail parties, visit local purveyors of gourmet food and spirits, and compete in two world-class, vehicle-based cooking challenges!”
I had never heard of the event before Land Rover invited me to it. After I RSVPed, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much fun it was going to be. What would my cooking partner and I make? Bacon-wrapped beef filet chili? Pretzel-crusted chicken? These were questions I could answer at the event. I had to get to it first, though.
Land Rover was kind enough to have a 2017 Discovery HSE Luxury waiting for me at the Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. After spending a night exploring New York City via subway, I woke up early and made the four-hour drive from my hotel in Jersey City up through New York and into Manchester, Vermont.
As the miles racked up and the trees lining both sides of I-87 streaked past the all-new Disco’s reclined windshield, I thought back to my first drive of the all-new Discovery. Earlier this year, I drove it through Utah and Arizona. I tried to soak in as much of it as possible, but there were times when conversation with my driving partner flooded my thoughts. This time, I had one all to myself and plenty of time to pay attention to its behavior.
This time, however, I had one all to myself and plenty of time to pay attention to its behavior.
The wind slipped right off of the Discovery’s smooth lines, barely registering in my ears as it did. I had my hands at the nine and three positions on the thin-rimmed wheel, so I was fully able to feel how light and numb the steering was.
Most of the road to Vermont was smooth, but the occasional bump in the pavement revealed how the redone Disco’s ride quality is more crossover than truck-like. I felt the imperfections in the road without them jarring my spine.
The supercharged 3.0-liter V6 up front generated 340 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque, which was more than enough to get the Discovery up to speed at a confidence-inspiring rate, especially when I had the dial for the eight-speed automatic turned to S.
Shortly after arriving in Manchester, two Land Rover reps showed me the campsite I’d be spending the next two nights at. It was a sprawling natural carpet dotted with tents and surrounded by the soft peaks of the tree-covered and perfectly named Green Mountains. Tents, chairs, and tables stood near unwashed Series I and II Discos, mud-splattered Range Rovers, and slab-sided Defenders. The section I was going to stay in was a landscape of one-person tents in front of a line of 2017
Tents, chairs, and tables stood near unwashed Series I and II Discos, mud-splattered Range Rovers, and slab-sided Defenders. The section I was going to stay in was a landscape of one-person tents in front of a line of 2017 Discoveries and a gleaming Defender conversion from Arkonik. The Discos would get their proper mud baths the next day during the Land Rover Experience.
After a cocktail party and “Chopped”-style cooking competition (which Madison Motors won, leaving Team Samosa in second and Hungover Rovers in third) outside of the Orvis flagship store, it was time to wind down and sleep under the stars. One of my fellow campers snored so loudly that my earplugs were worthless.
I never found out who it was, but if I had, I would’ve stifled my annoyance with their flatulence-like breathing and thanked them for forcing me to learn even more about the Discovery. I knew I had to get as much sleep as possible for the next day’s drive and contest, so I wasn’t going to waste time trying to find a place in my mind in which I couldn’t hear the racket ceaselessly coming out of my neighbor’s mouth.
I grabbed my thin inflated mattress pad, sleeping bag, and pillow, then raised the rear hatch of my Discovery press loaner. I had driven the Discovery across five states, through sand, and over rocks. That night (and the night after), I camped in it.
I pushed the buttons to lower the inner tailgate and two rear rows of seats. Once I had arranged my bed away from bed, I pressed a button on the main tailgate to lower it. I’m 5’10” and was able to lay down comfortably inside the Discovery, although I had to be careful how far forward I tilted the driver’s seat.
If it was leaning toward the wheel too much, it left a gap between its back and the top of the fully reclined second-row seatback that my pillow could fall into. Aside from that, sleep was effortless and, most importantly, reached in silence.
More Than A Driving School Lesson
The next morning, I brushed my teeth in the woods with the assistance of a bottle of water. I followed that up with coffee and a pastry, then hopped into my Discovery with my drive partner and headed out for a half-day Land Rover Experience in Manchester Village, one of only four such driving schools in North America.
I’ve driven a variety of vehicles – from the Discovery to the Power Wagon to the Range Rover to the Ford F-150 Raptor – off-road in a multitude of environments, but within 15 minutes of my patient and friendly instructor guiding me, I learned new lessons. I had never before considered the importance of a vehicle’s pivot point, because the OHV park I go to in Central Texas has so many wide-open sections.
On the way up to the top of Mt. Equinox, that vital area halfway down the length of the Discovery’s body helped me rotate the Discovery around trees. To make sure our progress through the series of staggered whoop-de-dos was as smooth as possible, I quickly started using left-foot braking.
The right tires eventually traveled over a hillock, causing the Discovery to lean left. That gave my teacher the opportunity to tell me that if we started to slide further leftward and down, I should turn the wheel the same way, not against it as most people would do.
He was teaching me so many great things that at one point on my journey to the peak 3,848 feet high in the Vermont sky, I temporarily forgot a lesson I had learned a while back: to keep my momentum when going uphill. After the Discovery’s impressive stock tires clawed their ways over dirt, mud, and rocks, we arrived at our destination. The panoramic view from the top of Mt. Equinox was breathtaking. My knowledge of how to drive in the rough was forever changed.
Later that day, Land Rover’s reps took me and my fellow writers and content creators to a grocery store to shop for the ingredients we’d use in our appetizers, main courses, and desserts. My cooking partner and I decided to keep things simple.
When the first group of judges came by that evening, we started them off with a refreshing watermelon, crumbled feta, and diced mint salad. We fired up our portable stove and treated the second round of judges to skewered chunks of London Broil marinated in a steak and chop sauce, as well as skewers of red bell peppers and mushrooms (we cooked the veggies separately because they would’ve burned by the time the meat was done).
To prepare for the third and final team of judges, I cut some bananas into chunks, placed those in tin foil, topped them with semi-sweet chocolate chips, gathered the tin foil at the top, and cooked each pod on the stove. Once the chocolate melted, I took the sweet treats off of their cooking racks, opened their foil wrappers, and sprinkled chopped nuts and coarsely ground sea salt on the chocolatey bananas.
My competitors were hardcore. Some planned their menus out weeks in advance. Others made food that let the judges experience their ethnic homelands through their taste buds. My fellow media members made dishes that ranged from Caribbean-influenced to Vermont maple-flavored.
I had the luxury of Land Rover providing my cooking supplies, utensils, and ingredients. The non-journalists that outnumbered me brought their gear from home, as well as tables, coolers, and full-size propane grills. Their commitment to victory was impressive.
The next morning, the winners of a variety of categories were announced. There were prizes from companies such as Mad River Distillers, Airguns of Arizona, and L.T. Wright Handcrafted Knives for the team that drove the furthest to get to the 2017 Muddy Chef Challenge, the best and worst drivers, and other stand-out competitors.
The top three teams in the appetizer (1st – Dark and Stormy, 2nd – Team Samosa, 3rd – Guns and Grills), main course (1st – Land and Sea Rover, 2nd – Drive the Globe, 3rd – The Maple Blondies), and dessert categories (1st – Old Blue, 2nd – Drive the Globe, 3rd – Team Samosa) won increasingly large prize packs and the respect of their fellow Muddy Chefs. Team America came in third as the overall winner. Team Samosa took second place. Guns and Grills was the all-out winner of the 2017 Muddy Chef Challenge.
I may not have walked away with an artisan knife or a trophy mug, but I went back home after two days of driving the new Land Rover Discovery through the natural beauty of the northeast, off-roading it at a world-class facility, and taking it to a stunning vista at the top of a mountain. It all left a taste in my mouth. An unforgettably sweet one.