Going into the final round of Chefs Challenge, Daniel Wright saw himself as a dark horse: He was seemingly inexperienced for the competition.
To compete, chefs must prepare three courses, fine-dining style. Wright owns a sandwich shop near Mission Hospital, Tomato Jam Café, so he doesn’t often cook and plate for fine dining.
“Somebody has to make really bomb-ass sandwiches,” he says. “I can’t stress enough how good simple food is.”
At the Chefs Challenge final on Saturday, Aug. 24, which took place during the Asheville Wine and Food Festival, Wright competed against Anthony Cerrato of Strada Italiano, an upscale Italian restaurant downtown, and took home the title of Best Chef in WNC.
At each round of the competition, which began in February with 16 chefs, restaurant teams used a secret ingredient to prepare three courses each — usually appetizer, main course and dessert — for a panel of judges (and in the early rounds, audience members).
For the finals, the secret ingredient was Sunburst Trout.
The dessert course presented obvious challenges, but Wright was unfazed. He prepared a cinnamon-brown sugar polenta cake topped with berry compote and trout caviar-whipped cream, one of the most successful dishes of the afternoon.
Strada’s highest scoring dish was a take on a lettuce wrap. It consisted of chard-wrapped trout with black sesame seeds, pear and heirloom tomatoes, and was served with a sesame-fennel vinaigrette.
The restaurant teams prepared all the food in a portable kitchen, using sauté stations to cook the food, so the types of dishes they had means to prepare were limited. Still, Wright turned out potato gratin, which is usually baked.
Even with his new title (and $5,000 in prize money), Wright says he’ll continue to prepare homestyle sides and sandwiches at Tomato Jam. “I knew we had the potential to do it,” he says. “You can leave your element and come and do something that’s this upscale, and still go back to what [you] were doing.”
Photos by Rich Orris.