Tuesday, May 24, 2011

My Experience at the WNC Chef’s Challenge with Chef/Owner Nathan Allen of Knife & Fork VS Chef Stephen Sauer

The final heat of the WNC Chef’s Challenge Quarterfinals was a close competition. Two incredible Chefs and their teams were pulling out the stops to showcase their culinary skills. With over 100 people present to taste and judge their plates; the Chefs were also challenged with producing, plating and delivering their best to a full house at Cucina24.

As Bob Bowles, founder of the WNC Chef’s Challenge and the WNC Wine & Food Festival, introduced the evening and the Chefs the guests were visibly excited about the competition. I could see many smiling faces and a lot of chatting from table to table about what was expected for the night.

Bowles also introduced the secret ingredient that the Chefs were given to incorporate into every dish . . . olives and olive oil. To be precise it was a combination of Greek and French olives and black and green olives: kalamata, picholine, niçoise, castelvetrano. The olive oil is from Niko Theros located here in Asheville sourcing olives from his family’s olive farm in Greece.

The Menu
Course #1

Chef Allen
Crisp Skinned Australian Barramundi
Ceviche with Duck Egg Aioli & Salsa Verde

Course #2

Chef Sauer
Octopus Ceviche with Castelvetrano Olives & Grilled Pineapple
Grilled Octopus with Shaved Radish & Arugula Salad, Balsamic & Extra Virgin Olive Oil Vinaigrette

Course #3

Chef Allen
Seared & Braised Quail with Olive Brulee
Parmesan Niçoise Olive Crisps

Course #4

Chef Sauer
Seared Duck Breast & Moussaka Frittata
Fennel & Pea Shoot Salad
Pickled Chard with Toasted Olive Béchamel

Course #5

Chef Allen
Picholine Olive & Marcona Croissant with Olive Pit Custard
Almond Honey with Thyme Blossoms
Deep-Fried Castelvetrano

Course #6

Chef Sauer
Sweet Mascarpone Crepe
Candied Olives
Rhubarb Confit with Olive Oil

The Votes
The top four scoring courses were as follows.
  1. Course #5 with 2790 votes - Picholine Olive & Marcona Croissant
  2. Course #2 with 2486 votes - Octopus Ceviche & Grilled Octopus
  3. Course #3 with 2377 votes –Quail with Olive Brulee
  4. Course #4 with 2260 votes - Duck Breast & Moussaka Frittata
And the overall vote went to Nathan Allen from Knife & Fork in Spruce Pine, North Carolina.

The Details
Let’s review the highest scoring course for the evening.

Picholine Olive & Marcona Croissant with Olive Pit Custard
Almond Honey with Thyme Blossoms
Deep-Fried Castelvetrano

This dish was an obvious stand out. Although it lacked a lot of color in the presentation, it more than made up for it by being delicious and innovative. The croissant was a bit heavy textured but still flakey and full of flavor. The rest of the dish was amazing offering a variety of flavors that came together to make a heavenly dessert.

The aspect of the dish that I continued to hear everyone speak about was the deep fried castelvetrano olives. These are large and bright green olives that are from the Sicilian region of Italy with a lot of meat on the pit. They are mild in flavor with a slight saltiness – they’re like butter.

The slightly salty olive with the sweetness from the honey and custard combined with the Marcona almonds, the croissant and thyme blossoms was like a drama taking place on your palate. Sweet, salty, aromatic, crunchy, soft, buttery and milky – the flavors and textures rolled over the taste buds intriguing us with the varied yet integrated flavors.

I heard after the competition that during the menu planning stage when discussing this course, Chef Allen claimed it a Biblical dessert flowing with milk and honey. I love how his mind works, yet it seemed a very fitting description of what was to come.

As for the other five courses, there were many highlights but I’ll not take up your time right now with all of my notes and details. These two Chefs and their teams provided an incredible competition for the rest of us to observe and taste through. Both Chefs are very talented but you can only have one winner in something like this. So Chef Allen moves forward and Chef Sauer begins his plans on his return during next year’s Chef’s Challenge.

The Stats
It was a tight vote and the highest overall scoring so far in the 2011 WNC Chef’s Challenges. With a total possible 18,180 votes available out of the 101 people that voted; the combined scores ranked 78% of the total showing that both Chefs were working extremely hard to win the night.

Chef Allen scored 7,453 and Chef Sauer scored 6,767 with only 4.8% difference between the two. Congratulations Chefs for a job well done and congratulations to Chef Allen for his high score and next step into the Semi-finals on June 6.

The Next Step
Wow, what a night! That finalizes the Quarterfinals and leads us into the WNC Chefs Challenge Semi-final Challenges that begin on May 30 between Bistro at Biltmore and Lexington Avenue Brewery.

I hope to see you there.

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