By Jenna Walton

The calm warm hues of the Century Room, from the barn rafters and red brick walls to the late evening sunlight slipping across the hardwood floor, belie the buzz of anticipation infusing this classy second-story dive.  Some in attendance are guest judges, restaurateurs, and media personnel; others and all – food connoisseurs from every walk of life.   In short, we are the tables of hungry gung-ho foodies. And we are waiting for 7:00.

And promptly on the hour, the 2014 Asheville Scene Chef Challenge begins.

Bob Bowles, the event organizer and coordinator, ushers in the contest. The winners of this Chef Challenge will be featured at the 2014 Asheville Wine and Food Festival (August 21-23). On the Thirsty Monk team is Chef Leisa Payne and sou chefs Jeff Lloyd & Jason Bullock. On the King James Public House  team is Chef Steven Goff and  sou chefs Jacob Whitman & Nolte Weir-Villatoro. Their creations will be rated on presentation, aroma, taste, originality, and use of the Secret Ingredient…


So begins the 6-course culinary adventure.

Dish 1 (2nd place winner): Peach sweet & sour shrimp and crab with shaved peach herb salad.

According to one fan, this is “a spectacular combination of East meets West,” with the sweet and sour sauce achieving a tanginess that is both mild and fruity. A pretty splash of green cilantro for presentation and full-bodied flavor rounds out this light opening dish.


Dish 2: Crab-stuffed jalapeno pepper with cheese fondue and peach marmalade.

Crispy golden Panco breading envelops a layer of succulent shredded crab. And nestled in the center: a tender jalapeño! The combination of ingredients creates a pleasantly surprising orange-crème flavor and a flush of sweet warmth on the tongue.

Plates are cleared. Laughter emanates from the tables as people sip wine and hold nuanced discussions of the previous two dishes. Food is not just a compelling topic, but a celebration as well.

Dish 3 (1st place winner): Peach-braised pork ribs with jalapeno cream cheese grits, peach chow-chow and peach demi.

“Decadent and perfectly cooked.” “Graphic.” Though acting as a visual supporting wall for the dainty mound of ringed cucumbers and onions, the pork is unbelievably tender and falls easily from the bone. The underlay of creamed grits provides a ‘comfort food’ feel. And, while not screaming “peach,” the chow-chow adds a nice flair to the dish. Definitely a crowd-pleaser!

Dish 4: Chipotle-rubbed pork tenderloin with peach BBQ sauce over blue cheese grits and black-eyed pea succotash.

This dish is the smell of southern goodness incarnate. And apparently blue cheese and creamed grits are made for each other.  The combination of peach BBQ sauce with the chipotle rub created a “spiced applesauce” texture and flavor, according to one critic.

Dish 5: Sour cream cake with grilled peaches, basil, cinnamon toast crunch and peach cream.

Possibly the prettiest dish so far! The strawberries and peaches create bold splashes of color, and the flavors are diverse – almost overwhelming in their variety! The tarragon and peach are an especially exceptional touch.

Dish 6: Rosemary shortbread cookie with sweet potato puree, grilled peach, cour de crème, and bacon-cashew confetti.

The lemon sauce and bacon bits really carry this dessert dish, adding pop and panache to the rosemary shortbread. The creamy textures of the cour de crème and sweet potato lend a smooth texture that balances the shortbread. A fried sage leaf adorns the presentation.

Ten minutes after the last plates are cleared, Bob disappears into the kitchen to rally the chefs. The audience has been waiting all night to meet these kitchen wizards. The six of them walk out single file and stand facing the audience, who cheer and applaud them as much for their creativity as their long night of hard work. They all look a little spent, but deeply satisfied as well. As they should be: it was a job well done and a truly memorable evening. Successful because, as Bob put it: “Here, the chefs all work together.”

Fun Fact: The judges’ and audience’s scores agreed to within 1 point!

Chef Quotes:

Leisa Payne: “Thirsty Monk actually has…food.”

Steven Goff: “And we made that with sour cream cake. Puree.”

Jenna Walton is working with Barefoot Farm and is looking to put down roots in the area