Chefs Challenge cook off culminates Saturday

An unlikely match-up will compete for the title of Best Chef in WNC on Saturday.

Chef/owner Anthony Cerrato of Strada Italiano, an upscale Italian restaurant downtown, cooks off against chef/owner Daniel Wright of Tomato Jam Café, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it breakfast and lunch place near Mission Hospital.

Wright says his café may be small, but his culinary crew is mighty. “We come and do this to show we can hang with the dining crowd regardless of the sandwiches and home-cooked sides we pup out at the restaurant,” he says. “Don’t count us out.”

The final round of the Chefs Challenge competition takes place Saturday, Aug. 24, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Asheville Wine and Food Festival. The teams compete in a public display of culinary skill, and a panel of judges determines the winner.

“Improvisation has been a recurring theme in my career, and I enjoy being able to do that in a different environment and communing with other chefs,” Cerrato says. “It’s all about fun.”

The contest started in February with 16 chefs from cafe, hotel, pub and fine dining environments. Cerrato and Wright worked through the bracket, creating menus on the fly and incorporating a secret ingredient — revealed to them on the day of the competition — into each one.

Saturday’s challenge includes a secret ingredient and a portable kitchen set up in the U.S. Cellular Center’s event space.

The winner earns $5,000 and a cookware package from FRS, the industry equipment provider with a shop on Asheland Avenue.

Wine and Food Festival attendees can watch the contest free of charge. Tickets to the Grand Tasting are still available at

The Chefs Challenge semifinals took place earlier in the week at Pack’s Tavern. The chefs worked in the restaurant’s upstairs kitchen, which is normally used for events.

On Tuesday, Aug. 20, Wright competed with a team from Zambra led by sous chef Steven Goff (also of Ben’s Tune-Up and the forthcoming King James Public House).

Fresh corn was the secret ingredient.

Wright created the highest scoring dish of the night: creamed corn pudding with a roasted corn shortbread cookie and butterscotch whipped cream.

Goff’s seared duck breast with corn-jalapeño puree, corn salad, black-eyed peas and corn oil took second place.

The panel of judges, which carried 30 percent of the vote, ranked Zambra’s dishes highest, but the audience supported Tomato Jam’s dishes.

That enthusiasm carried the vote and advanced Wright and his team to the finals at the Grand Tasting.

On Wednesday, Aug. 21, Cerrato and chef Brian Ross of Dough vied for a spot in the finals.

The secret ingredient was peaches.

Cerrato created the highest scoring dish: A peach creme brulee with sesame sea salt- and chocolate-dipped, apple-smoked bacon. The Pack’s Tavern kitchen doesn’t have a torch to create the sugar shell that typically tops creme brulee, so he made sugar glass on the stove top to place over the custard.

Dough’s peach gazpacho also proved popular. It was topped with a simple toast, a dollop of goat cheese and a drizzle of olive oil.

The audience was torn between the two teams — the vote was split fifty-fifty. But the panel of judges selected the Strada team as the winner.

For a more detailed recap of the dinners, visit the Asheville Wine and Food Festival’s blog at

Pictured: Dough’s charred peach and cream semifreddo with balsamic reduction and pecan-oat crumble.


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