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Challenge 7: Boca vs. Knife & Fork: A Close Call

Diners rate the dishes at the Chefs Challenge between Boca and Knife & Fork. Photographs by Jennifer Haynes
Posted by: 
Rita Larkin, Editor

By Laurey Masterton

Oooh, baby. I’m just back home from an evening spent tasting the competitive entries of two local chefs: Nate Allen from Knife & Fork in Spruce Pine and Stewart Lyon from Boca in Asheville. The secret ingredient? The whole hog.

I had been invited to blog and arrived early, thinking that I would write about the final preparations, the scurrying around the kitchen, the frenzy just before the guests arrived. Nope! ’Twas not to be. I, along with everyone else, was seated in the dining room of Cucina24 and had to be as clueless as everyone. I sat at the bar, but my view of the kitchen, tantalizingly close, was blocked by drapes. No peeking. No hints.

The two chefs, with two helpers each, arrived at noon, and at that point learned what would be the secret ingredient. A half hour of planning and then—whoosh! Off to cook. The Cucina24 kitchen is small, my friends (I sneaked a peek later), and putting out 100 plates is no small feat. Six rounds. One hundred plates each round. It’s impressive. Big props to the dishwasher!

Aside from having to use pork in every dish, the rules are pretty wide open. We ended up having two appetizer-like plates, two main course-type tastes, and two sweet finales, all with pork. (And let me say that as I write this I don’t know who won—though I just heard my phone beep so maybe the text message with the winner’s name waits for me. I’ll check in a few minutes.)

Round 1: A palm-size bowl with a sunchoke soup, braised pork butt rillettes, morel duxelles, and liver crostini.

“Look, smell, taste,” the instructions on the scorecard suggested.

This dish was a nice starter—mild and springy. Maybe a bit too mild for me, but it used pork twice, so it got a couple of extra points in the “use of the secret ingredient” category on my scorecard.

Its competition was a small rectangular plate with braised pork hocks with morels, fava beans, and radishes with parsley—very aromatic and fresh looking. The pork was rich, complex in its flavors, and offered nice textural contrasts. I voted it the winner of the first two dishes with 29 points out of a possible 30.

Round 2: Wood oven-roasted andouille sausage with sunchoke slivers, tempura ramps, and a savory waffle—how fun sounding! I was a little disappointed, but everyone around me loved it. Each diner’s vote counts, not just some opinionated judge: Hence the scorecards.

The following dish was involved. My menu listed it as a “pork duet.” (As the blogger, I was the only one with a menu. Everyone else was surprised with what was coming out next from the curtained kitchen.)

For the pork duet, one side of the plate had kalbi-style short ribs (I had to look this one up and found references to both Indian and Korean cuisine), sticky pistachio rice, and pickled vegetables. The other little assembly had braised pork cheek with guajillo chili demi-glace with green pea and asparagus salad. What a pretty plate! The warm short ribs fell off the bone, and the aroma caught me as soon as the plate crossed the counter. The cheek was like the crunchy end of old-style spare ribs—just the delightful meaty portion. My plate was clean at the end of this course, well, all except for that bone. Thirty fat points from me. Dee-lish!

And the winner? For me, it was the duet. For many around me, it was the waffles. Like I say, different strokes for, well, you know.

Round 3: Dessert.

The first dish was a pork fat-enriched pecan pastry with spiced caramel pork loin mascarpone, rhubarb, and fresh berries. By this point, Brian Canipelli, the chef and owner of Cucina24, was visiting me at my counter spot, giving hints of plates to come. “This one has promise,” he said. “They’re barely cooking thin strips of loin in hot caramel. Looks interesting. Conceptually, at least, a winner.”

The pork was flavorful, but mine was not quite cooked enough for me. The rest of my plate? Clean. The caramel drizzle, rhubarb and berry compote, pecan pork fat crispy wafer thingy—all gone. It was great! I could have had a few more of them. Crispy, sweet, and salty all at once. That’s why they use lard in piecrust. It’s just so darn good!

That plate had to compete against a dish with a mouthful of a name: honey caramelized pork jowl ice cream with a cranberry scone, pine nut brittle, and rum-infused strawberries topped with bacon powder (really?!) and a goat cheese espuma. Could that all fit on one plate? Yup!

The second duet of the night, this one a sweet finale, was really fun! Salty ice cream and a drizzle of caramel with bacon chips in it took up one side of the plate. The other had a little cloud of the goat cheese foam—really more like a pile of whipped cream—and on top perched three strawberries and a little triangle of brittle. The bacon powder was a salty dusting shaved like Parmesan cheese. Bacon, yes. Interesting? You bet!

Between the desserts, the pork jowl ice cream construction won my vote with a score of 24 points.

At this point, I snuck into the kitchen and watched the teams cleaning up and finishing the plating of the final round. I’m told the two teams have become friends as a result of the competition. Before the competition, Boca visited Knife & Fork for dinner. The Asheville team took the Spruce Pine crew out to breakfast today, and they’re all going out tonight to celebrate.

And I still don’t know who won. Frankly, I’m not much into competitions, so I don’t really care. I had a fun time tasting these plates of food. I’ve never been to either restaurant, but now I want to go to both. Soon. I want more braised pork hocks and more caramel with bacon and more bacon powder.

I can hear my phone calling me, telling me who won. But I don’t think I’m going to find out. It doesn’t really matter. Both teams kept 100 people happy tonight. In my mind, they both won.

P.S. OK, I looked at my messages and, out of a possible 12,000 points (with all 100+ diners voting), Knife & Fork won by just 33 points. Way to go, Boca and Knife & Fork.

Over and Out.

Laurey Masterton
Proprietor – Laurey’s: Café * Catering * Comfort

Challenge 7 Menu

Boca, Asheville
Chef Stewart Lyon

Sunchoke Soup
Braised Pork Butt Rillettes
Morel Duxelles and Liver Crostini

Voted #3: Pork Duet: Kalbi-style Ribs
Sticky Pistachio Rice and Pickled Vegetables
Braised Pork Cheek with Guajillo Chili Demi-glace
Green Pea and Asparagus Salad

Voted #2: Honey Caramelized Pork Jowl Ice Cream with a Cranberry Scone
Pine Nut Bacon Brittle and Rum-infused Strawberries topped with Bacon Powder
Goat Cheese Espuma

Knife & Fork, Spruce Pine
Chef Nathan Allen

Braised Pork Hocks with Morels
Fava Beans and Radishes with Parsley

Voted #1: Wood oven-roasted Andouille Sausage
Sunchokes with tempura ramp and savory waffle

Pork fat-enriched Pecan Pastry with Spiced Caramel Pork Loin Mascarpone
Rhubarb and Fresh Berries


Special thanks to Hickory Nut Gap Farm,, for providing the pork.

Knife & Fork will compete in the quarterfinals on May 23 against the winner of next week’s challenge between The Orchard at Broadmoor and Red Stag Grill. Reserve your tickets for the Chefs Challenges and the Asheville Wine and Food Festival, August 13, at