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FRS Chefs Challenge Finale: And the Winner is…

Chefs Challenge Finale

ASAP was thrilled to be asked to attend and blog about the FRS Chefs Challenge Finale at the Asheville Wine & Food Festival, especially because the secret ingredient was local, Appalachian Grown

One hour. Three courses: appetizer, entrée, dessert. At 2 pm sharp, Asheville Wine & Food Festival Founder and Director Bob Bowles began explaining the rules of the FRS Chefs Challenge Finale to the competitors and crowd. “Now, if you can’t make a dessert, I understand,” Bowles teased the chefs, reminiscing about the, well, challenging ingredients of past challenges.

As Bowles introduced the judges (James Beard Award-winning cookbook author Nathalie Dupree, Joe Scully of Chestnut and Corner Kitchen, Emily Patrick of Mountain Xpress, Susi Gott Seguret of Seasonal School of Culinary Arts, and Mackensy Lunsford of Asheville Scene) along with other key players, Chef Daniel Wright and team Tomato Jam Café and Chef Anthony Cerrato and team Strada Italiano were noticeably anxious, pacing a bit and taking stock—you could almost see their minds memorizing the fridge and pantry ingredients provided by French Broad Food Co-op and processing the approximately $1,000 worth of equipment available to them thanks to FRS Asheville (pictured above).

Then, at 2:15, a cooler appeared. Bowles began taking out ice packs one…by one…by one…finally revealing local, Appalachian Grown Sunburst Trout Farms smoked trout, trout fillets, and trout caviar as the secret ingredients.

The chefs were quick out of the gate, grabbing fennel and green beans, heating up sauté pans. Event emcees and comic relief Edwin French of Pack’s Tavern and Denny Trantham of FRS were fast off the blocks, too, joking immediately not to panic if the sprinklers went off and asking if there were any firefighters in the audience—the joke quickly progressed to “Are there any health inspectors in the audience?”

By 2:45, things were sizzling, literally. The aroma drifted onto the main floor of the festival, drawing back those in the crowd who had left to refill their wine glasses. And just after 3:00, with 15 minutes to go, the competitors began finishing their dishes and serving them to the judges.

The first finished dish came from team Tomato Jam Café: an appetizer of Swiss chard and cabbage salad topped with a pan-fried cornmeal-crusted trout fillet. Next up, unexpectedly, came Tomato Jam’s dessert: a polenta shortcake with tart berry compote and caviar whipped cream. Strada served their appetizer next: black sesame-crusted pan-seared trout wrapped in chard and Bibb lettuce with heirloom tomatoes and topped with a chunky walnut vinaigrette. They followed with their dessert as well: a sweet and savory mushroom crepe with smoked trout, dried blueberries, apricot glaze, and coconut whipped cream, all topped with caviar.

That’s when things really got “blood pressurey,” to quote one looker-on. The emcees gave the two-minute warning, and both teams scrambled to plate and serve their final dishes to the judges. Strada’s last plate was a golden trout amandine with a lemon-zested crème fraiche and scalloped purple potatoes and apples. Tomato Jam closed out the competition with a blue cheese and fennel au gratin, salt and pepper-crusted trout, and brown butter green beans.

While the judges’ scores were tallied, Bowles recapped the prizes. Both teams would receive the day’s cooking equipment from FRS. The winner would receive even more equipment from FRS along with a check for $5,000. “No pressure judges,” he quipped while holding the life-size check in the competitors’ sights.

The title of Asheville culinary royalty ultimately went to Chef Wright and team Tomato Jam Café. What sealed their victory? The very thing Bowles thought might just prove too difficult to pull off: trout dessert. Tomato Jam’s polenta shortcake with caviar whipped cream was the judges’ favorite dish.

“I feel justified in what I do,” said Chef Wright, who noted that he never attended culinary school, after his battle win. “I cook with my heart.” Wright admitted that his heart was beating pretty fast not only during but also before the competition, and that he couldn’t get much sleep in anticipation. But that doesn’t mean he’s done with competing. He recently challenged himself to learn how to brew beer, entering his second batch into a competition and taking home an award. “I like to go as far as I can take it. I’ll definitely find something to be competitive with next.”

Keep your eyes and ears open and stomach ready for the new reigning culinary king of Asheville’s next move and next dish, and mark your calendars now for February, when the 2014 WNC Chefs Challenge will begin with 16 new hopefuls waiting to hear their names called after “And the winner is…”

Dishes:

Team Tomato Jam Café
– Swiss chard and cabbage salad topped with a pan-fried cornmeal-crusted trout fillet
– Blue cheese and fennel au gratin, salt and pepper-crusted trout, and brown butter green beans
– Polenta shortcake with tart berry compote and caviar whipped cream

Team Strada Italiano
– Black sesame-crusted pan-seared trout wrapped in chard and Bibb lettuce with heirloom tomatoes and a chunky walnut vinaigrette
– Golden trout amandine with a lemon-zested crème fraiche and scalloped purple potatoes and apples
– Sweet and savory mushroom crepe with smoked trout, dried blueberries, apricot glaze, coconut whipped cream, and caviar

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