The Iron Chef-style event was held in a separate tent just off the main expo floor of the Grand Tasting (at the WNC Expo Center near the Asheville Airport). The competition venue was equipped with rows of seats facing an impressive setup of two stainless-steel-filled instant kitchens. The warring teams, Knife & Fork from Spruce Pine (Nate Allen, Brenda Poole and Gaelan Corozine) and the Bistro on the Biltmore Estate (Michael Gonzales, Rachel vom Orde and Sean Carroll), waged battle over this year’s secret ingredient — tomatoes. These weren’t your garden-variety grocery store tomatoes, either. The locally grown heirlooms included a number of varietals cherished by cooks, such as Brandywines, Cherokee purples and German Johnsons.
Each restaurant was provided with a well-stocked larder of goods and given only one hour to pull together three courses.
The well-lit battle scene was filmed and projected on large screens for the audience to see, and narrated by two very capable and entertaining emcees: Vijay Shastri, culinary personality, sommelier and chef, and Michael Fahey, former president of the WNC chapter of the American Culinary Federation.
When the all-too-short hour was up, the judges’ table was set front and center so that the panel could sniff, sample and occasionally snark under the watchful eyes of the crowd.
Natalie Dupree: cookbook author and TV personality
Mark Rosenstein: former chef and owner of The Market Place restaurant
Mackensy Lunsford (yours truly): Mountain Xpress food writer
John Batchelor: restaurant critic for the Greensboro News and Record
Brian Canipelli: owner and head chef of Cucina 24 in Asheville
Susi Gott Séguret: director of the Seasonal School of Culinary Arts
Carla Baden of Santé handled wine pairings (on the fly, as she had no way of knowing what the chefs were going to make that day when she left her Asheville wine bar laden with case after case of pairing options).
Here is the final menu (recalled with the help of fellow judge Séguret; it’s hard to eat on stage, judge, tweet and take notes at the same time):
• Shrimp salad with blistered shishito peppers, sungold tomatoes and shallot vinaigrette (Knife & Fork)
• Scallop crudo with shaved mango, grapefruit, radish, Brandywine tomato and microgreens (Bistro at Biltmore)
• Flank steak over warm seasonal salad of grilled eggplant, Jimmy Nardello’s peppers (look it up!), German striped tomatoes and shallot vinaigrette, pesto (Knife & Fork)
• Sweet corn and heirloom-tomato succotash with shrimp, bacon, gnocchi and red onion marmalade (Bistro at Biltmore)
• Tomato pie with roasted Sungold tomatoes, rosemary pastry cream, Midnight goat cheese from Spinning Spider, fresh dill and tomato-balsamic reduction (Knife & Fork)
• Charred tomato bread pudding with lemon-basil mascarpone, tomato jam and toasted pecans (Bistro at Biltmore)
It was a close battle — in the end, only three points separated the winning and losing team — but chef Nate Allen from Knife & Fork and his crew were victorious. In a show of bad-boy enthusiasm, Allen flipped over a (by then clean and empty) table where the judges’ plates had been constructed, and pumped his fist in the air, eliciting somewhat surprised cheers from the crowd, who had seemed decidedly in favor of Knife & Fork (if the sheer volume of applause is of any indication).
Congrats to the winning team and looking forward to next year!