(Photos by Jesse Farthing)
Crowds of people, people and more people — more than 3,000 — made their way to the annual Asheville Wine & Food Festival at the U.S. Cellular Center downtown on Saturday, Aug. 23.
Throughout the halls and sprawled across the arena floor, winemakers and store owners filled glasses with rich reds and straw-yellow whites, restaurants offered samples of dishes and distillers poured cocktails or just straight spirits.
“It was crowded, and wonderfully so,” says event organizer Bob Bowles. “Not too much, though. People could still move around with ease.”
At the end of the evening, after everyone had consumed their fill of booze and local grub, came the event that Bowles has always displayed as the highlight of the festival: the final competition in the annual Chefs Challenge, a cooking competition that pits regional chefs against each other in an Iron Chef-style battle.
This year’s combatants were not strictly local: The competition expanded to regional competitors including Ulfet Ozyabasiligil Ralph of Blom Supper Club in Charleston, S.C. and Regan Stachler of Little Hen in Apex, N.C. Locally, Asheville was represented by Ryan Kline of Buffalo Nickel and Joe Mitchell of Chestnut.
Each chef is given an hour and a secret ingredient — this year it was a whole rabbit — and expected to create a dish that will impress the panel of judges, most of whom are chefs themselves. This year the panel included James Beard favorite William Dissen of the Market Place and Susi Gott Seguret of the Seasonal School of Culinary Arts.
“Rabbit had to have been a challenge for some of those who had not cooked with rabbit a hundred times,” says Seguret.
In the end, the top prize going to Charleston’s Ralph with Stachler coming in second and Kline finishing third.
“For the most part, most of their personal expression came in what their condiments were and what their sauces were, as well as what part of the rabbit they chose to feature,” says Seguret. “Some chose the legs, others chose the ribs, and then of course, they were given the kidneys, which were only featured in a major way in the chef from Little Hen’s dishes.”
Ralph used the kidneys in her sauce reduction to extract flavor, but removed them before the sauce was completed. Chefs were provided two burners, but were allowed to bring in any equipment that they felt they would need “within reason,” says Bowles. But walking in empty handed seems to have worked better for Ralph.
“She did such a marvelous job. She came with so little equipment that it really helped her in the long run,” says Bowles. “She didn’t need the blenders and she didn’t need the equipment that a lot of the chefs brought in.”