At our last Chef’s Challenge Dinner, Chestnut owner and executive chef, Joe Scully, took us downstairs to see the kitchen where the dinners were prepped. Of course, by that point the prep work had been finished and the kitchen was quiet and empty. But it did make me think, so I put in a call to Bob Bowles, creator of the WNC Food and Wine Festival in Asheville and incidentally the Chef’s Challenge as well. He agreed to let me visit the kitchens and talk to the chefs while the Challenge was actually going on. (And he even asked me to do a guest blog for WNC Food and Wine Magazine which I will be writing for the dinner on April 30th).
So this past Tuesday, I grabbed my camera (and James) and headed over from our Asheville Bed and Breakfast to Chestnut Restaurant to meet the chefs. What a difference! The first thing we saw when we came
through the door was Chef Chuck Kegg of WALK Lounge and Kitchen in West Asheville butchering a pork tenderloin. He was working fast but was still able to talk with us. He told us that this was his third challenge although this was the first one for which he was the Head Chef. Each Chef is allowed to bring two sou-chefs and his sou-chefs were working right alongside him, joking and adding to the conversation. One was checking bread in the oven, another was butchering pork and a huge vat of lobsters was boiling away behind them (not, we were sad to find out, for our dinner).
A little further down the kitchen we met Chef Graham Overal from The Blackbird. Graham has only been in the USA for about six months and at the Blackbird for less than a month, so he was happy to have a good support team helping him. There must be something about sharing cooking techniques in the UK, because he jumped right in (in his
best Jaime Oliver accent), showing us how he got the beef to come out in consistently sized medallions for each serving (note to self: we need to try Blackbird again!). While Graham was new to the WNC Chef Challenge, he was not new to the concept having worked with some highly reputable chefs in Great Britain. I asked him how he prepared for an event like this and he said that it started with picking his team. He had brought along a pastry chef as well as a chef who worked a lot with fish so they knew they would be doing a meat, a fish, and a dessert course. The rest was determined by the secret ingredient.
Tonight the secret ingredient was sorghum. We spent a lot of time talking about sorghum as the night progressed. It’s a very trendy ingredient in Asheville right now so Chef Kegg was prepared for it but it’s not a very well-known ingredient outside of the USA (or even outside of the South) so it was more of challenge for Chef Overal. He told us that he found the taste to be similar to honey but with more of a licorice flavor. Sorghum, which is made from a grass, is sometimes called “sorghum molasses“. The plant was imported to the Southern United States from Africa in the 17th century. Molasses, which is made from sugar cane, was brought to New England from the islands of the Caribbean where much of it was made into rum.
We also asked the Chefs if there were any unexpected hiccups or roadblocks to their experience so far. Once they have pulled the proteins and made up their dishes, the menu is taken away to be printed so it is not easy to make changes. A dish can be altered slightly, or a single element left out, but by and large after the first half hour or so they are committed. Chuck had an uneventful morning but Graham and his team were surprised to discover that the sweet potatoes they intended to use for their puree were actually purple! In a sense this was fortuitous as the purple color made a wonderful statement on the plate and the puree was delicious.
James and I thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent backstage with the Chefs. They were both very gracious and giving of their time when they certainly had other things to do. Dinner that night was fabulous as always but maybe just a little bit better because we shared some special knowledge about the cooks and the dishes. I’m not saying who won because, in my opinion, we did!