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Backstage at the Chef’s Challenge in Asheville, NC
March 19, 2013 by Susan Murray
I had pretty much decided that I wasn’t going to write any more posts about the WNC Magazine Chef’s Challenge for my Carolina Bed & Breakfast blog in Asheville. Not that they aren’t great, because they are, but because there is only so much I can tell you about the food and the restaurants. At least that what I thought!
In the four years that James and I have been attending the Challenge, it has been held at three different restaurants. We asked Bob Bowles of WNC Food and Wine Magazine why this was and he told us there were a number of reasons: the restaurant has to be large enough to hold 100+ people in a central space so that they can hear and see what is going on and the kitchen needs to be large enough to hold two head chefs and up eight sous-chefs prepping and preparing 3 courses each (or at least 600 plates) at the same time. Obviously not every restaurant can do this and for the ones that can it is a big undertaking.
This year the Challenge dinners are being held at Chestnut, a new restaurant on Biltmore Avenue in downtown Asheville, a short walk from our bed and breakfast. James and I visited Chestnut when it first opened this past October. October in Asheville is probably one of the worst possible times to open a restaurant. Even a seasoned staff will be hard pressed to keep up with the demand during high season. Our first visit to Chestnut shortly after they opened was so marred by spotty and inconsistent service that we were unable to make any opinions as to the food and we decided to reserve judgement for another visit. (The waiter actually brought us the bill before he brought us the food!) The restaurant is in a beautiful 1924 building which has been restored to reflect the Art Deco Era in which it was built. Co-owners Kevin Westmoreland and Chef Joe Scully also own the well-respected Corner Kitchen in Biltmore Village. (You may have heard about the Corner Kitchen when President and Mrs. Obama ate there in 2010.) So we were expecting a lot from it. And from what we have been hearing, along with what we saw the other night, the service issues have been addressed and the food makes it worth a visit. Another restaurant for us to go to!
Shortly after we were seated, Chef Joe came over to our table to say hello–he was working the crowd hard–and James asked him about the size of the kitchen at Chestnut. Needless
to say we jumped at the chance when Joe asked us if we want to go backstage at the Chef’s Challenge and visit the kitchens! One of the largest commercial kitchens in Asheville it takes up the entire basement of the building and is bigger than the restaurant itself. First we passed through the original kitchen upstairs. The chefs were hard at work searing steaks and cooking potatoes for the dinner. The heat and the smoke was intense and the smell divine. Did I mention that chocolate was the secret ingredient? But the space was tiny and cramped. Downstairs was another story.
After the frantic activity upstairs we were surprised to find the downstairs kitchen quiet and almost deserted. Chef Joe explained that most of the prep work takes place downstairs and that the space is designed to handle banquets and large cocktail parties. By this time in the evening, it has all been cleaned up and the action moves to the staging kitchen upstairs. It is his vision
to use the kitchen to prepare and sell foods such as soups and sauces to other restaurants. To that end he and his partner have already bought the delivery truck although as of now there is no use for it. One of the things he is most proud of is a ColdStone Ice Cream Maker. A friend of his had called to say the local ColdStone franchise was going out of business and he jumped right in his truck and went and got it. (We later enjoyed the benefits of it during our dinner). Another really nice feature of the kitchen is the beer cooler. Up to fourteen different kegs of beer can be stored in this refrigerated section with connections directly to the taps upstairs. Using blown cold air they are able to keep the beer at a steady 40 degrees from the moment it leaves the keg until it is poured for the guest at the bar.We saw the whole kitchen including the two walk-in freezers and all of it was extremely clean and well organized. None of Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares here!
And finally a word about the dinner: it was excellent! They have made some changes in the format which improve the experience. Firstly there is now a printed menu at the table when you arrive. Granted this means it’s pretty easy to figure out what the secret ingredient is but it also means that the Master of Ceremonies, Bob Bowles, doesn’t have to keep interrupting the dinner to announce the next dish. It is often noisy and hard to hear him and it helps me a lot as I no longer have to scribble frantically in order to take notes. They have also added a wine pairing to the dinner. For a very reasonably priced $12, we received three wines which had been selected by the Chefs to accompany their dishes.
While I was not blown away by the originality of the dishes (there was a lot of mole sauce), I was impressed by the taste. Our favorite was the Shredded Duck Confit in Chocolate Mole with a spicy slaw. I always wonder if the first dish gets an edge because the diners are hungry but I honestly think this would have been our favorite anyway. The steaks were both perfectly cooked and lived up to the deliciousness we had smelled in the kitchen. The only disappointment for us was in the desserts. Chocolate ice cream? Really??
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