Small Bites

Judges table: At the WNC Magazine Chefs Challenge competitions, the audience gets to critique the food. Photo by Camilla Calnan photography

Food fight

The WNC Magazine Chefs Challenge series is back with new chefs, new secret ingredients — and a whole new venue. The challenges, to be held at Cucina 24 (24 Wall St. in downtown Asheville), will kick off Monday, March 7, and run through April 25. Last year, all of the action took place at the Flying Frog Café, but the closing of the German-Indian restaurant in January left organizers looking for a new place to host the Iron Chef-style event.

Cucina 24 seems like an excellent choice to host the series, particularly with its open kitchen, which will allow for a better view of what’s taking place behind the scenes.

The first match-up in the series pits Chef Michael Gonzalez of the Bistro on the Biltmore Estate against returning competitor Chef Cary Shackelford of Deerfield Community. Last year, Shackelford led his team to a surprise victory over the Red Stag team from the Grand Bohemian.

This year's competitors represent restaurants from Asheville, Hendersonville, Spruce Pine and Waynesville. Boca, Chef Mo's Restaurant and Bar, Chef's Table, Curras Nuevo, Flight Wood Grill and Wine Bar, Lexington Avenue Brewery, Lobster Trap, Never Blue Tapas Bar and Grille, Pomodoros, Posana Café and the Red Stag Grill are among the restaurants joining the action.

Here’s how it works: The teams are given a secret ingredient, and are tasked to create and prepare three unique items utilizing that ingredient. The contest is judged by the audience, which blindly samples a half dozen different dishes — three from each restaurant — served at random. This means that no one knows which dish is coming from which restaurant. Restaurants are encouraged before entering the competition to “cook outside of the box,” so to speak, and are not allowed to turn out a signature dish that would help identify them.

This makes for great fun and a little mystery. A complete list of pairings in the first heat can be found at Tickets for each dinner are $49 each (not including drinks, gratuity or tax). Foodies are encouraged to pick their heats and purchase tickets early: Most of the dinners sold out last year.

Beer for babes

Once again, the Universal Joint in West Asheville (784 Haywood Road) is hosting a fundraiser where everyone wins — drinking for a good cause. You may remember a similar event from last year that raised money for little Marough Gardner, a local child with a rare form of cancer.

The event features donated beer and wine from area breweries and distributors, as well as guest servers collecting and donating tips for a charity — this go-round, the event raises money for the Rainbow Mountain Children's School arts program. Rainbow Mountain is a private, independent and alternative educational program for preschool through middle school-age children. In the past, the school has provided funding for classroom instruction in traditional Appalachian and African dance, musical instruments, multicultural classroom materials and the development of a sister-school program in San Cristobal, Mexico.

The fundraiser takes place on Saturday, Feb. 26 from 11:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. Beer and wine will come from French Broad, Pisgah and Foothills Brewing companies, wine and more beer from Skyland, Empire and Tryon distributors. Beer will cost $3 a pint, wine $4 a glass. All beer and wine sales, and all tips hauled in by the guest “celebrity” servers, will support Rainbow Mountain. Representatives from the school — guest beer runners for the night — will be on hand to talk about its philosophy and its long history in West Asheville (established on Haywood Road in 1977). For more information about the U-Joint, visit For more information about Rainbow Mountain, visit

All in the family

When Craggie Brewing Company ordered up some beer bread for their one-year anniversary celebration, the West End Bakery bakers were inspired instead to make Craggie beer pizza dough. It’s yet another delicious collaborative effort between the brewery and a local business — locally focused foodies may know that the Hop Ice Cream Company routinely makes frozen treats with the brewery’s beer. Cathy Cleary, co-owner of the West End Bakery, says that the result of the Craggie bread experimentation was delicious enough to feature regularly at the bakery. 

“We really wanted to put beer bread on our bread schedule, but there just wasn’t room,” says Cleary. The bakery does currently turn out a wide assortment, especially given the size of the establishment — up to eight different breads every day are baked in that kitchen, including sunflower-spelt, spinach-feta, whole grain spelt, tomato-basil and more. 

And pizza dough is a fine alternative, says Cleary. “It made sense. Several customers had been requesting pizza dough, and one of our employees, Greg, likes to make pizza crust using beer.”

The pizza dough is made with Craggie’s Belgian-Style Ale, Dubbelicious, instead of water. The “double” ale is made with barley, rye, wheat and oat malts, brewed with Belgian candy sugar and then fermented with a regional yeast strain. The flour used is 100 percent North Carolina organic. (The bakery is one of only seven bakeries in the region participating in the N.C. Organic Bread Flour Project.)

The dough is available frozen or thawed, with directions for preparation provided. Cleary’s partner, Krista Stearnes, says that no special equipment is needed — she makes hers on a simple cookie sheet at home, she says. One ball of dough makes “one normal, good-sized pizza,” says Stearnes. She adds that, while the thawed dough holds for several days, it can be kept frozen for quite a while. Even better? One ball of dough retails for $2.75.

The bakery is also offering a contest for customers who want to pit their Craggie pizza recipe against others in categories including “most delicious,” “best use of local ingredients” and “best personality,” to name a few. There will also be a “best in show” winner. The contest runs until the end of February. Awards include $10 gift cards to the bakery, and aspiring pizza artists get rewarded just for trying. Send a picture of the pizza to, along with your name and contact information and a short description of the ingredients and inspiration. Contest entries will receive a confirmation reply and a voucher for a cup of complimentary coffee at the West End Bakery. The bakery will post pictures of entries and winners on their Facebook page. For more information, visit

Mariachi Mondays

The Lexington Avenue Brewing Company (39 N. Lexington Ave.) is ready for a fiesta.

The brewery begins its Mariachi Mondays on the 21st of this month, featuring $2 Mexican beers, margarita specials and a live mariachi band every week.

A menu of cheap south-of-the-border eats will be featured as well — think $2 tacos with molé-braised chicken, pork carnitas, smoked garlic hummus or fried catfish and $5 tortas (Mexican sandwiches) with fillings like ground venison with chimichurri or avocado. The LAB will also feature nachos, sopapillas and Mexican-style doughnuts with cinnamon and sugar, finished with a sweet ancho glaze. For more information, visit

Breakfast at Boca

Speaking of cheap south-of-the-border eats, Boca (68 North Lexington Ave.) is offering a killer deal for breakfast throughout the winter months. Tuesday through Friday, buy one Boca breakfast and whomever you dine with gets to eat for free. The deal is available from 8:30 until 11 a.m. Beverages are not included. For more information about Boca, or to see the full menu, visit

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