Taste of success: Regional chefs battle it out at Chefs Challenge

Chef Ulfet Ozyabasligil Ralph, from the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Charleston, SC, wins the Chefs Challenge. (Mountain Xpress / Jesse Farthing)

(Photos by Jesse Farthing)

Crowds of people, people and more people — more than 3,000 — made their way to the annual Asheville Wine & Food Festival at the U.S. Cellular Center downtown on Saturday, Aug. 23.

Throughout the halls and sprawled across the arena floor, winemakers and store owners filled glasses with rich reds and straw-yellow whites, restaurants offered samples of dishes and distillers poured cocktails or just straight spirits.

“It was crowded, and wonderfully so,” says event organizer Bob Bowles. “Not too much, though. People could still move around with ease.”

At the end of the evening, after everyone had consumed their fill of booze and local grub, came the event that Bowles has always displayed as the highlight of the festival: the final competition in the annual Chefs Challenge, a cooking competition that pits regional chefs against each other in an Iron Chef-style battle.

This year’s combatants were not strictly local: The competition expanded to regional competitors including Ulfet Ozyabasiligil Ralph of Blom Supper Club in Charleston, S.C. and Regan Stachler of Little Hen in Apex, N.C. Locally, Asheville was represented by Ryan Kline of Buffalo Nickel and Joe Mitchell of Chestnut.

Each chef is given an hour and a secret ingredient — this year it was a whole rabbit — and expected to create a dish that will impress the panel of judges, most of whom are chefs themselves. This year the panel included James Beard favorite William Dissen of the Market Place and Susi Gott Seguret of the Seasonal School of Culinary Arts.

“Rabbit had to have been a challenge for some of those who had not cooked with rabbit a hundred times,” says Seguret.

In the end, the top prize going to Charleston’s Ralph with Stachler coming in second and Kline finishing third.

“For the most part, most of their personal expression came in what their condiments were and what their sauces were, as well as what part of the rabbit they chose to feature,” says Seguret. “Some chose the legs, others chose the ribs, and then of course, they were given the kidneys, which were only featured in a major way in the chef from Little Hen’s dishes.”

Ralph used the kidneys in her sauce reduction to extract flavor, but removed them before the sauce was completed. Chefs were provided two burners, but were allowed to bring in any equipment that they felt they would need “within reason,” says Bowles. But walking in empty handed seems to have worked better for Ralph.

“She did such a marvelous job. She came with so little equipment that it really helped her in the long run,” says Bowles. “She didn’t need the blenders and she didn’t need the equipment that a lot of the chefs brought in.”


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com Follow me @jonathanammons

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.