“What kind of a crazy title is that?”, I can hear you ask. And you are right, it is kind of a mash-up of topics but I have a reason: I want you to tell you about my interesting evening and if I just put up another”Chef’s Challenge Blog” I wouldn’t blame you for thinking you’ve heard enough about them! This isn’t just about the Chef’s Challenge per se. It’s about my experience writing a guest blog for the WNC Food and Wine Magazine, about the food and people we met last night and of course, about our Asheville bed and breakfast.
A couple of months ago James and I were at a Chef’s Challenge dinner talking with Bob Bowles of WNC Magazine and James mentioned that I write a blog about Asheville. Bob asked me to send him a link and then asked me if I would be interested in writing a guest blog for the Magazine. Of course I said yes. The first available date was this past Tuesday, April 30 and the event would be a quarter-final. I will post the link on the Carolina Facebook page when it becomes available. So friend us to find out!
By now, I am getting pretty used to making my way downstairs to the huge prep kitchen at Chestnut Restaurant. This Tuesday was no exception. It was the chefs who were different. This was a quarter-final and both of the chefs were experienced competitors. They seemed more relaxed than previous chefs I have interviewed and it reminded me of the fact that chefs like to cook (no, duh!) so this should be fun for them.
Reading over their bios in preparation for talking to them, I had been intrigued that Cary Shackelford came from the Deerfield Episcopal Retirement Community of Asheville. It
didn’t seem like there would be a lot of scope for innovative cooking there and I wasn’t sure why he would want to give up a day (or more) to taking part in this competition. Cary assured me that the dining room at the Community Center was very advanced but admitted that he liked taking part in the competition because it was a challenge. He said he always learns something there and often incorporates dishes he creates as a part of the challenge into the menu at the Center. At the time he was working diligently at painting the sides of a muffin tin with batter and I think his intention was to fill the center with something. As it turned out this didn’t happen. I’m not sure why but the mini muffins made their appearance at the bottom of a glass of Strawberry Sabayon, clearly not their original role. This is the fourth year Cary has taken part in the competition. He says you have to have a plan when you go in but not to take it too seriously.
The second chef was Anthony Cerrato from Strada, an Italian restaurant in town. It made
more sense to me that he would taking part in the competition. This is his second year to do so. He told me that the first year, he had just opened the restaurant and looked at the competition as a team building exercise. This time around, he was doing it more for fun. His team consisted of two old friends who are also chefs here in Asheville. I had prepared some great questions (I thought) to ask them. So I was disappointed when I asked them each to describe their menus for the evening in one word and they both replied “strawberry” (strawberries being the secret ingredient). I left hoping they had more imagination when it came to the food!
That evening Bob sat us at the Judge’s Table which was great. Depending on the layout of the restaurant, diners sometimes sit with other groups and sometimes sit alone. At Chestnut, there are a lot of small tables and James and I had been missing the experience of sitting with like-minded strangers during the dinner. Our dinner table companions this evening made up for the previous lack. While the judges were busy conferring together at the far end of the table, Abby, James and I had a lively conversation with Ron and Copper of Mountain Farm Produce.
They are both long-time residents of Asheville and can remember this city before its revival. Ron owns Mountain Farm Produce, a purveyor of fresh produce to many of the best restaurants in town. He and Copper often drive out to farms to find the best possible produce within a 100 mile radius of our town. He had promised strawberries to Warren Wilson College for their graduation last week and thought it would also make a great secret ingredient for the Challenge–which it would do, provided there were any! This Spring has been late with few warm nights so most of the farms in the area are almost a month behind. Ron and Copper had to go down to the foothills to find enough strawberries for 100 people. I’m glad they found them because Bob told me he was thinking he would have to use mustard again if the strawberries were unavailable. (We had mustard once before in the competition. In my opinion it was regrettable!). But mostly it was just fun to sit at a table with a lot of other Asheville Foodies and trade opinions about the best (and worst) opinions in town, and where one could find great watercress, wild mushrooms etc.
Not a bad way to spend an evening at all.
The semi-final and final round of the Chef’s Challenge will be held at the Asheville Food and Wine Festival in August. The Food and Wine Festival comprises of two days of events including “Sweet”: an evening of desserts. For more information and to buy tickets, click here.