For the past three Tuesdays, I’ve had the privilege of sharing the WNC Chefs Challenge experience via tweets and Facebook posts for the Asheville Wine & Food Festival. I’m thinking of changing my professional tagline to “will tweet for food” (non-paying social media gigs don’t get any better than this). Every Tuesday, two top local chefs go knife-to-knife, creating three courses each, all of which contain a secret ingredient revealed to the them the day of the dinner. It’s like participating in an exciting food reality show (think Bravo, not Fox), only the focus isn’t on flaming tempers and kitchen disasters… it’s all about what it should be—the food.
At the third dinner on Tuesday, Chef Mike “Mikey” Fisera of Lexington Avenue Brewery faced off against Sean Fernandez of Ruth’s Chris. Their secret ingredient? Eggs from area agrarian darlings Hickory Nut Gap Farm.
While awaiting the first dish, Bob Bowles “cracked us up” with his “yolks”. Even I couldn’t resist describing the menu as egg-cellent.
Chef Fernandez and his team turned out the first two dishes. He used the secret ingredient twice in his egg ravioli, both in the homemade pasta and again with the rich egg yolk that filled it. The second dish was the top-rated dish of the evening and also my favorite. Braised pork belly and local cheese grits (from Adluh) topped with a poached egg and hollandaise demi made for an elevated breakfast bowl–transcendent both in form and flavor.
LAB rolled out the next two dishes, a lobster Quiche and filet tartar. The standout on the Quiche plate for me were the greens. The crisp chard were reminiscent of the more mainstream crisp kale (kale chips), which crunched nicely mixed with the asparagus. Chef Fisera used eggs three ways for his tartar with a beautiful egg-shaped flash fried pasta bowl, a fried caper aioli and of course the yolk, which judge Suzy Phillips of Gypsy Queen Cuisine described as a “beautiful explosion of deliciousness.”
Ruth’s Chris ended on a sweet note with a mango creme brulee, a great success despite the deep dish. As Bob Bowles said at the end of the evening, “Food is for nourishment, but also an art form.” If food is an art form, than LAB’s dessert was the evening’s piece de resistance. From its whimsical presentation to the playful textures, team LAB’s tarte took the cake.
In addition to delicious food, we have the pleasure at the judge’s table of meeting fascinating people each week in the food industry. Vinny Scully, Chef Joe Scully’s older brother, served as a special guest judge. With 20 years of cooking experience, he’s proud to see his younger brother follow in his footsteps. Vinny says he and his brother have more in common than cheffing, citing their sarcasm as a family art.
Zoë and Mark Clarke of Hickory Nut Gap Farm brought their youth and charm to the table. Mark graduated last year from UNC-Chapel Hill. He puts his English and creative writing degrees to work for his family, posting for the Hickory Nut Gap blog and working on a project for the 100th anniversary of their family farm coming up in 2016. Zoë ‘s NPR aspirations and engaging nature have her well on the road to becoming the next Diane Rehms (only a few octaves higher). The whole table enjoyed listening to the sibs talk about family life on the farm, from egg-gathering duties to the dynamics of the Clarke dynasty.
What was served:
Chef Sean Fernandez and Team Ruth’s Chris
- Herb Infused Egg Ravioli with a Jalepeno Cure Salmon and a Saffron Beurre Blanc
- Braised Pork Belly with Local Cheese Grits with a Poached Egg and Hollandaise Demi
- Mango Creme Brulee with a Vanilla Grand Marnier Mascarpone
Chef Mike Fisera and Team LAB
- Filo Baked Lobster Quiche with Fennel and Bacon, Crisp Chard, Shaved Asparagus and a Sundried Tomato Hollandaise
- Filet Tartar with Egg Yolk, Flash Fried Pasta, Charred Grapefruit Arugula Salad, Fried Caper Aioli with Spiced Honey
- Tarte au Citron, Blueberry Ice Cream and Marcona Almond Tuile
What I learned: The hundred pleats in a classic chef’s hat symbolize the 100 different ways to cook an egg.
In the end, Chef Fernandez had the winning dish with his cheese grits, but Chef Fisera came out the winner in a very close competition (48/52).