Cooking competition brings together chefs, culinary students and lunchroom staff
The storeroom of downtown’s FRS storefront turned into a hot, crowded kitchen on May 13. With phrases like“Behind!” “Sharp knife!” “Hot pan!” being thrown out every few minutes, the competition’s participants hurried from the stove to the cutting board to the oven, then back to the cutting board. The dozens of spectators crowding around the workstations saw a blur of checkered pants, chef coats and wisps of hair under chef caps as the competitors hurried to complete their dishes in the time allotted.
All the hustle and bustle was part of the second annual Whacked! cooking competition hosted by FRS, Asheville’s restaurant supply store. The contest, named after a play on the Food Network’s reality cooking show “Chopped,” brought together teams of cooks led by chefs from three of Asheville Independent Restaurants’ member businesses, all vying for a chance at victory.
“Most of the chefs want to be involved because it’s a community event, and they’re getting to interact with different people,” says Sheila Bivins, the FRS store manager.
The teams, led by Green Sage Café’s Christopher Cox, Biscuit Head’s Jason Roy and Bobby Lang, who was filling in for Andy Favilla of Favilla’s New York Pizza due to illness, were accompanied by culinary students from the Eliada School of Trade Arts and the Green Opportunities Kitchen-Ready program.
Eliada’s program provides culinary training for young adults aging out of foster care programs and the juvenile justice system. Eliada students “have seen more than the average 17- or 18-year-old,” Bivins says. “But they need life skills, and that’s what this program is doing for them.”
And students of the GO Kitchen-Ready program “have hit rough spots in their lives,” says Bivins. “Many are homeless or close to it. Many are on their last leg. Mark’s [Rosenstein, the Kitchen-Ready training manager] program gives them a viable, marketable skill.”
In addition to the culinary students, the teams also featured lunchroom staff members from Buncombe, Henderson and Haywood counties.
Lisa Payne, Buncombe County’s child nutrition director, approached her staff members, “and they said ‘Let’s go to win!’” she remembers. Payne has been wondering how to get her staff members more involved with the local restaurant scene, and this seemed like an appropriate bridge. With more food ending up in trash cans rather than in bellies, Bivins says, “[Payne] would like local chefs and the local restaurant scene to assist the local lunchroom staff in making their lunches better, and more like the Asheville food scene. You find out that what’s perceived to be little, sweet ladies, are actually quite adept at being creative and doing a whole lot with just a little.”
Improvisation and quick thinking were handy skills for team members during the competition, as the ingredients for each course were unknown to the teams. Each group was presented with a basket of secret ingredients at the beginning of each round, and the team had to think of an appetizer, entree and dessert to make for the panel of five judges in a limited amount of time. With unusual ingredients like Spam, Buchi kombucha, beef heart, doughnuts and more, the groups hurried to whip up their dishes, sometimes working right until the 10-second countdown to get their food plated and presented to the judges.
After tasting three 3-course meals, the panel of judges tallied up the results, and just one point separated each team. Roy’s team scored 385 points, Lang’s team scored 386 points and Cox’s team scored 387 points. While Cox’s team was victorious in the overall competition, Roy’s team managed to take home the Whacked School Tray Plate Up Award for the most attractive lunch tray display.
“It’s good to get these groups together so they can have a good time together,” Bivins says. “While [the chefs] love being involved, and they like getting the attention and that kind of thing, they also like helping the community.”