Asheville’s seventh annual Wine and Food Festival had its first phases of its culinary competition on Friday, May 1st, with “Amuse.” At this pre-festival event, five chefs and six mixologists were to take an ingredient or two from an amusement park or circus and use it as inspiration to produce bite-sized original dishes. The winners of this competition will go on to compete at the Grand Tasting and Elixir later this summer.
This was my first time at this event, and also in tasting food conceived by any of the chefs. The hall was full of people eagerly sampling from the tables lined up on either side of the hall, or browsing the vendor tables in the middle, and at the far end, a table with palate-cleansing iced water to help distinguish the flavors from one dish to the next.
I sampled all the offerings save two cocktails at one of the tables (I’m a lightweight) and found it interesting how each of the chefs incorporated their chosen theme ingredients into something that might be served at a restaurant. Cotton candy, caramel corn, popcorn and peanuts found their way into a wide variety of dishes reflecting a vast array of interpretations. Cocktails, too, incorporated the concepts, but less popularly were actual ingredients used; instead they each seemed to try to evoke the emotions of childhood spent at the county fair.
It was easy to see, as the night progressed, which chefs were a big hit with the partygoers,
…and which were not.
Reviewing each of these dishes would produce a small novella, so I’ll highlight the ones that really stood out to me… some for the better, and some not.
The first dish I sampled was a sort of chicken taco offered by Strada Italiano. I have not had the experience of dining there myself yet, but it has a fairly good reputation and is priced accordingly, so when I picked up this dish, I expected something delicious. It certainly looked flavorful. Vegetable slaw was laid atop two small pieces of fried chicken tenders, with peanut satay dressing a white corn tortilla.
Strada chose peanuts and cotton candy to incorporate into their dish. They used peanuts to create a satay, a sort of dressing, and brined their chicken in cotton candy. This is an odd choice, for the cotton candy, as all brines contain sugar, and typically help the meat retain moisture and flavor. I found the cotton candy a bit of a stretch, but the peanut flavor actually dominated the wrap.
It was dry, bland, and awkward to eat. Because we did not have tables at which to sit, most of us were carrying coats and purses and balancing plates and drinks. This was a messy dish, and the moment I bit into it, the second piece of chicken fell out the back, along with a hefty portion of my vegetables. The corn tortilla tasted quite raw, though it had some char, and the peanut satay made a dry wrap almost too difficult to swallow without liquid. The crisp on the chicken was mushy, and the meat was overcooked and dry, a big surprise since the chicken had been brined. This wrap could have benefited from more seasoning, crunchier chicken (or no breading at all), and tortillas that were not so raw and bland.
It was easily the least popular table, and for good reason. It was a nice try, but I feel they could have benefited from practicing this a bit more beforehand. Ultimately, it was a swing and a miss.
Mission Hospital sent their Chef Dustin Huisenga to compete in this event. Hospitals aren’t known for their creativity or the quality of their dining, but Chef Huisenga surprised me with his turkey-leg themed hors d’ouvre. It was very tasty, but his competitors were more charismatic, their dishes bumped up a step or two. However, it was still delightful to taste such a well crafted, creatively selected offering from a hospital chef. I would not turn down a date at Mission Hospital after tasting the results of this chef’s talent.
The most outstanding dishes were very close. Chef Steven Goff, in my opinion, won this competition strictly on the basis of his ability to creatively combine disparate ingredients in such a way that made me feel like a celebrity just tasting it. He took a cube of pork belly, crumbled caramel corn, pickled vegetables and cotton candy, and produced an absolutely delicious dish. The pork belly, often a fatty affair, was offset by the vegetables, which served to curb the greasy nature, and the caramel corn added crunch while the cotton candy added just the right amount of sweetness to round off the flavors. His creativity was astounding.
When I talked to Chef Goff, he said he’d come to Asheville by way of hopping trains all the way across the continent from California. Although he previously worked for King James Public House on Charlotte Street, he acknowledged that they’d parted ways over creative differences. I can see how a restaurant with a restrictive perspective on their menu would not appreciate a man whose creativity surprises his dinner guests, but they lost an incredibly talented chef. He’s getting offers from outside Asheville, but hoping not to have to leave. I would consider it a huge loss if Asheville was not able to retain a chef with his vision and creativity. Calling all restaurants seeking a visionary: we have your man!
Another outstanding table was the Sweet Monkey Restaurant and Bakery table, presided over by a very talented Chef Hollie West. Chef Hollie was indeed the only one to prepare three dishes: Caribbean crab salad over house remoulade (spicy!) atop a slice of starfruit. carpaccio style Korean marinated beef in an endive leaf over seasoned rice garnished with a kale chip, and a beautiful dark chocolate mousse with homemade caramel in a chocolate cup. The variety of flavors was crafted perfectly and tied together: the starfruit set off the crab salad nicely, serving as a tiny fruit platter for the surprisingly spicy salad. The sweetness of the crab was balanced with the tartness of the fruit, which tied closely to the next dish, beef carpaccio atop a small leaf of endive. The crunch of the endive underscored and supported the delicious, beefy flavor, and the crispy kale leaf left a clean finish. This was a dish I’d like to see take up a whole serving size on my plate. The dark, warm flavors of the beef provided the perfect segue to the chocolate mousse, topped with smoky, salty bacon and served in a tiny chocolate cup. I did go back for seconds here, as did most of the other patrons.
What was most impressive about Hollie, and her table, was that her presentation was spectacular. Her “fortune teller” theme was beautiful and engaging, and allowed her to dress in saturated colors and connect with the patrons at her table in a warm and personable way. She knew her dishes, played on her strengths, and overall provided the whole package: taste, beauty, emotional response. Her dishes were delicious. However, I could not see how the theme of the event was reflected in her dishes, and for that I was sad to mark her down a few points for the failing to make it very obvious how the food was related to fortune telling.
Congratulations to Chef Hollie West for proceeding on to the next portion of the competition!
The last dish I still can taste lingering on my tongue was the duck mole tostada offered by Chef Jake Schmidt of Edison, at the Omni Grove Park Inn. The tostada was made from ground popcorn, was yielding but still supported the weight of a substantial dollop of duck mole, garnished with radish and jalapeno slivers. The mole flavor was quite mild, but a great use of the theme with the traditional chocolate and peanut butter found in mole sauce. Again, this was a delicious dish, but like Chef Huisenga, it was just not quite as outstanding as Chef West and Chef Goff’s creative dishes.
The cocktails were not as complex, but just as varied. I must preface this by saying I have a strong preference for vodka and rum over whiskey, bourbon, gin, and scotch. I took this into account when I sampled cocktails containing those liquors, and tried to judge them objectively.
Social Lounge’s cocktail containing creme de menthe liqueur was not my favorite, though I heard others raving about it. Though it contained some vanilla elements, the sharpness of the liqueur and mint flavor gave this cocktail too many high notes. Some heavy cream or more vanilla might have rounded out the shrill flavor better for me. It was pretty, but the flavor wasn’t quite right.
Jeff Daniels and Max Vega, from the WXYZ Lounge in the Aloft Hotel, came out bold and strong with a very spicy “Mango Mama,” a mango puree cocktail with a hefty dose of cayenne pepper, garnished with dried mango and candied ginger. Personally, I enjoyed this cocktail the most out of all of them; however, my palate is accustomed to spicy food and drink. I loved the strong flavors of ginger and the deep fruitiness of the mango, and the cayenne kept it from being too cloying. However, I can see how it might not have played well with the North Carolina palate, less used to the burning and slightly euphoric nature of cayenne.
Another favorite of mine was from Sunny Point Cafe. Their Mountain Medley, although spiked with bourbon (not one of my favorites), was outstanding. Freshly squeezed lemon juice, blackberry lemon soda, and bourbon combined to make a tasty beverage (if you like bourbon). The color was outstanding, and the garnish of a little purple and yellow viola blossom really showed this mixologist understands how beauty impacts flavor. The blackberry rolled in fruit leather as a garnish was tasty and reminded me of warm summer days. Congratulations to Mixologist Noah Hermanson for his win.
Justin Feraby also is reported to have gone on to the next level, as did Spenser Shultz, of Rhubarb Asheville, who will go on to compete at ELIXIR later this summer.
The competitors were not the only ones producing some tantalizing wares. The Chocolate Lab featured truffles flavored with Highland Brewery’s line of microbrews, such as Cold Mountain Winter Ale and Black Mocha Stout. Enrobed in dark chocolate, the Cold Mountain Winter Ale’s flavor was warm and yet delicate, like a vanilla bean that’s been laying in the sun. The Black Mocha Stout was also a nice match for the deep tones of the dark chocolate.
The Chocolate Lab can be found at various farmers’ markets around the Asheville area. We highly recommend you visit her. I’d bet Mom would even love some of these chocolates for Mother’s Day. For more information, please visit www.thechocolatelab.biz
I look forward to the rest of the events this summer, and I hope you will find your way to them, too!
More Information: http:// www.ashevillewineandfood.com
Sunny Point Cafe – Noah Hermanson
Pulp – Justin Ferraby
Rhubarb – Spenser Shultz
WXYZ LOUNGE – Jeff Daniels & Max Vega
Edison-Omni Grove Park Inn – Chef Jake Schmidt
Chef Steve Goff
Sweet Monkey – Chef Hollie West
Mission Hospital – Chef Dustin Huisenga