This post is not about basketball. It’s about chefs, and competitions and secret ingredients, about people and fun and getting through the last month of winter. You guessed it: it’s about the final of the Asheville Competition Dining Series: Fire On The Rock!
Earlier this year at our Asheville Bed and Breakfast, I made my “bracket” for the competition. Understandably I was biased towards downtown Asheville Restaurants as those are the ones we frequent and for which we know the chefs. I picked King James Pub over LAB for the first round and then Ambrozia over King James for round two. I was feeling quite proud of myself for heading into the final round with my bracket intact. This was harder, while I admit my predilection for Asheville Chefs and hence, Stephen Goff, he was going up against Michelle Bailey from Highland Lake Inn’s Seasons Restaurant (Flatrock, NC) and part of me was definitely rooting for a woman chef to win!
We rode over to the Biltmore with our trusty taxi driver, Woody. What a contrast from the week before! Instead of blowing snow and cold, the sun was shining and the glass doors on the veranda were wide open to let in the warm spring breeze. We shared a cab with
Heidi Billotto, food blogger and editor of Charlotte Living Magazine. She was a guest of the inns of the Asheville Bed & Breakfast Association for the weekend, having come to town as one of the judges for the final round. Asheville foodies were out in force for this one! We saw lots of old friends, and new friends from previous dinners and the cocktail hour was buzzing with anticipation…
Silly me. I thought that since it was the final round the secret ingredient would be something special and wonderful. My imagination ran through the wealth of North Carolina produce on offer. Apples, honey, fabulous cheeses, chocolate, meats and fish of every variety, the list of possibilities was endless. But no, these were not to be. The secret ingredient? Lusty Monk Mustard. Now don’t get me wrong. Lusty Monk makes good mustard: strong, hearty, rich and spicy mustard. Mustards with names like “Burn in Hell Chipotle Mustard” and “Original Sin”. The type of mustard that takes over a bland hot dog or so-so sandwich and creates a mouthful of heaven. Not, however, an easy ingredient to make into dessert or subtly add an extra dimension of flavor to a dish. On top of which, we went to a Chef’s Challenge two years ago in which this same mustard was the secret ingredient and it was not a happy experience. At Competition Dining events they use two secret ingredients, one of which must be used in every dish (the mustard) and the other must be in two of the three dishes. In this case the second ingredient was Beulah’s Bavarian Pretzels. A pretzel is a more forgiving ingredient than mustard: salty bread crumbs lend themselves (in my opinion) to many more uses and ideas. Too bad this was the less pervasively used “second” ingredient.
To give them all due credit, the chefs tried their best. There were a number of parts of dishes which were excellent (mostly the ones without the mustard). Michelle Bailey made a crab cake which was wonderful. I love good crab cakes: the ones which exactly hit the balance between filler (enough to hold it together but not too much) and crab with the perfect seasonings. I was not a fan of the “Blueberry Burn-in-Hell Mustard BBQ Sauce”
which was served with it. Blueberry??? Not so much. It tasted like mustard. Sam Etheridge had a Bavarian Pretzel Beer Battered Smoked Shrimp which knocked it out of the park. Other than that the only other thing that was memorable was some “Crispy Sauerkraut” which garnished a pork dish. Deep fried sauerkraut was an imaginative and unexpected use. Totally honestly, by the time we got to dessert I was feeling distinctly cross about mustard and a Chipotle Mustard Chocolate cake with Mustard Ice Cream was good but not good enough to make up for my palate which had been fed mustard to the limit. Thank goodness for the “Fizzy Blackberries”. No one seems to know how Chef Bailey made them. I wish she would share that secret!
You must have sensed by now that Michelle Bailey clinched the title and became the first female Champion. She will go on to Raleigh in November to vie for the Grand Championship against winners from Wilmington, Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro. I wish her lots of luck and secret ingredients worthy of her talent! As for me, in spite of it all I still love the Competition Dining Dinners. It’s about the food, for sure, but it’s also about the people and the fun!