Semifinal 1: Allen versus Roy
Lexington Avenue Brewery put a hurtin' on Knife & Fork in the Tuesday, Aug. 15 semifinal of the WNC Chef’s Challenge culinary showdown. Nathan Allen of Knife & Fork was last year’s reigning “Best Chef in North Carolina” — but he won’t retain the title. Diners and judges instead gave higher marks to the dishes prepared by chef Jason Roy of LAB,.
Beginning on March 20, 14 culinary teams have competed in weekly, six-course dinners based on a single ingredient that’s kept secret until the night of each event. Peaches were the star of the Aug. 15 dinner, posing a unique hurdle: How to showcase the fruit while balancing its flavor in savory dishes?
Although Roy was the overall victor, diners awarded highest marks to one of Allen's dishes, a phyllo crisp with berries, peach jam, sliced and spiced peaches, peach pastry cream and a basil garnish. This dish was the evening’s most complex. The berries, a rare variety named elaeagnus, grow wild in Spruce Pine. The dough for the phyllo crisp was rolled by hand and stippled with flavorful bursts of savory peach pit 'almonds,' which Allen roasted and crushed, adding sweet hints of cardamom.
Roy's best-rated dish — in second place overall — transformed a Thai dessert into a main course. He served peach and ginger glazed duck breast with pulled confit, peach sticky rice, fried shallots and microgreens. As in the dessert, sticky rice with mango, toasted sesame seeds added texture and spark to the bed of rice. The strong savory tones of the duck complemented the sweet peach and rice while integrating them into an entree. The rice was cooked in the duck fat from the confit to enhance and deepen its flavor. The peaches were an enticing substitute for the mango. The overall effect was familiar but exciting, conveying the elements of comfort food while remaining novel and thought-provoking.
Semifinal 2: Lyon versus Ryba
The Aug. 16 contest between Stewart Lyon of Boca and David Ryba of Inn on Biltmore clearly inspired their best games. And while Ryba emerged victorious, Lyon put up a strong fight.
Tomatoes — now in their prime locally — were the secret ingredient. The 250 pounds of Mr. Stripeys and German Pinks hailed from Perez Brothers Produce in Hendersonville. Cherry, green and yellow-tail tomatoes also appeared over the course of the evening.
Lyon’s leading dish was so simple it was bold. He served, in his words, a “big ol' slab of tomato” delicately spiced with salt, pepper, micro greens and a herbed crème fraîche. While one diner remarked that she wouldn't drive across town for it, judge Susi Gott Séguret declared it her favorite course of the night.
Ryba answered with a complex combination: tiny crab cakes with cubes of heirloom tomatoes, roasted cherry tomatoes, basil emulsion and a deeply smoky tomato vinaigrette (a creative substitute for the remoulade traditionally served with crab cakes). The dish was a work of art, both in terms of taste and visual arrangement, but diners questioned whether the tomatoes were well-showcased, especially after Lyon's first bold foray.
Other dishes included Lyon's bloody mary gazpacho with a pork-belly BLT, and his tomato-strawberry sorbet with sweet yellow-tail tomato coulis, frosted pine nuts and tomato goat cheese mousse, as well as Ryba's ricotta gnocchi with chorizo Bolognese, parmesan cheese and basil emulsion, and his tomato-strawberry cobbler with tomato basil granita and goat cheese brûlée.
Although Ryba will move on to the final round, Lyon's dishes were the ones that sparked diners' conversation and challenged their expectations.
The final Chef Challenge is Thursday, Aug. 23. Ryba will compete with Chef Jason Roy of the LAB for the title of “Best Chef in WNC.” Tickets to attend the dinner are still available. Visit http://www.finalchefchallenge.eventbrite.com for more information.