It’s official: the title of Best Chef in WNC goes to David Ryba of Inn on Biltmore. He earned the honor in the Aug. 23 finals, after six months of battles in the WNC Chefs Challenge competition. It wasn’t easy — chef Jason Roy of The LAB was a worthy competitor. The chefs serve very different styles at their restaurants — LAB features creative pub grub while Inn on Biltmore creates upscale, farm-to-table fare — and they both brought signature touches to the meal, which made it an exciting dining experience.
The competition format of the final round was different from the previous rounds, although the emphasis on a secret ingredient remained. In the past, the audience and the judges cast equally weighted votes for the winner, but Thursday, the verdict depended on the tastes of the six judges, who hailed from publications across the Southeast, including WNC Magazine and Southern Living.
In general, the audience expressed disappointment at the format revision, but Bob Bowles, director of Chefs Challenge, said the change was for the benefit of the competitors. “Over the years, the chefs have complained that it's a popularity contest,” he said. He hoped the judges would remain neutral even though the dishes were not offered anonymously as they had been in the past.
The chefs showcased this round’s secret ingredient, raspberries, in strategically different ways. Ryba contrasted their sweet-tart quality with the smooth, rich tastes of goat cheese panna cotta, smoked duck breast and braised duck leg, and dark chocolate flourless torte and almond ice cream. Roy employed the fruit in a series of creative twists, including raspberry-steamed buns with raspberry pork chasu (Cantonese pulled pork) and also venison leg with raspberry molé.
The venison dish surprised diners and judges. When Roy presented it, some diners nervously expected the notorious gaminess of the meat, but after tasting it, one guest pronounced it the best venison he had ever had. The marinade of chilies and coffee rounded out the game flavor and the raspberry accents offset it with their sweetness. The judges awarded the dish the highest marks of the night.
Ryba's dessert — raspberry-chocolate, flourless torte with a raspberry water cookie, toasted almond ice cream, almond brittle and raspberry reduction — shone as his best dish of the night. One diner said it convinced her that he deserved the win. The almond brittle was a small but essential addition to the composition, the mark of a truly discerning chef. Without it, the texture would have been too homogenous, but as one diner noticed, its crunchiness completed the combination.