Can you Beet This?

July 23, 2014



Forty-seven other diners and I gathered at eight circular tables last night, striking up conversation with new friends and delighting in the abundance of flavor, skill, and artistry before us.


With its open, high ceilinged loft space, and inviting wood beams and decor, the Century Room at Pack's Tavern provided the perfect ambiance for the event. Everyone could easily see everyone else: a mix of local foodies, professional judges, and a few out of town visitors.


I had the pleasure of sitting with folks who had attended many previous Chefs Challenges. Why come to this event rather than one of the area's fancy restaurants? The quality and uniqueness of the dishes, primarily. Liz and Miriam Hughes of Asheville love to experience the chefs' creative incorporation of the night's secret ingredient into each course.  "Plus," added Judy Bruce of Brevard, "the portions are not too big."


This particular challenge was not to disappoint. The secret ingredient was…beets!


The chefs, Joe Mitchell of Chestnut of Asheville and Michael Kramer of Table 301 of Greenville, SC, worked with a mix of heirloom candy-stripe and golden beets along with the more standard red beets.


"They can only bring their knives," explained Asheville Wine & Food Festival Founder and Director Bob Bowles. Chefs have their cell phones confiscated and can't order in any special ingredients or equipment; they must use what is on hand.


Beet sauces were a common element through the six courses, though with different names: glaze, relish, jam, syrup, and gastrique.


The first dish, "Patchwork of Beets in 3 Preparations; Carrots, Chives, Blue Cheese," heralded the high quality that was to come. Topped with coarse sea salt and arranged like a modernist painting, it was bold, spare, and arresting, beautifully highlighting the distinctive qualities and preparations of the different beets.


Standout dishes for my palate were this salad and dish five, "Beet and Chocolate Cake, Candied Beet, Beet Syrup & Beet Milkshake." I had a hunch that these were made by the same chef, and in fact, they were both creations of Chef Kramer, whose accolades include the AAA 4-Diamond award while Executive Chef at McCrady's in Charleston, SC.


Chef Kramer used the word "whimsical" to describe his dessert, and, highlighting the power of improvisation within limits, said the idea was prompted mainly by the pressure of using what was on hand. Unfortunately, the cake emerged from the kitchen much delayed, so most diners did not get to experience the magical synergy of the deep-flavored, frothy milkshake and the decadent cake together.


Another highlight of the evening was an outstanding barbecue sauce prepared by Chef Mitchell to accompany his "Beet BBQ Pork Belly & Fried Green Tomato, Jalapeño Cheddar Grit Cake, and Pickled Beet Relish." Mitchell's skill with this dish might be related to his prior experience as chef at the Creole/Cajun restaurant The Blue Gator. The pork belly was thick but delicate-textured, first steamed, then roasted. The fried green tomato, which Chef Mitchell revealed had been soaked in beet juice, was also impressive.


Chef Mitchell's dessert, "Beet and Citrus Cake with Vanilla Mousse, Orange Caramel & Beet Glaze," also drew oohs and aahs -- and the highest score of the night -- with its unexpectedly tangy cream between moist layers, and a beautiful beet red overlay pattern on the sauce.


Other unique aspects of the meal were a very bacony beet jam prepared by Chef Kramer to accompany his rack of lamb, and a light, almost mousse-like seafood sausage prepared by Chef Mitchell containing Mahi, shrimp, and rosemary. The gastrique in this dish, a beet and mushroom flavored vinegar-sugar reduction, was lick-your-plate richly sweet -- a perfect balance for the acidic vinaigrette that accompanied it.


Throughout the evening, Founder/Director Bowles deemphasized the competition aspect of the cook-off, explaining that finalists would be chosen based on compiled scores of all first-round competitors.


So, who won? The diners, hands down. I hope to see both of these chefs representing at the Grand Tasting event August 23rd at the Civic Center.



Carla Seidl is founder/producer of the new website Earth Flavors, profiling local ingredients in Asheville and Western North Carolina. See