April 10 Chefs Challenge: Sunburst Trout Wins
Written by Graham Averill
Moonshine pie with apples, Troy and Sons Moonshine, and sweet bacon grit cream. Does it get any better than this? Well, yes. Because this is just one of six dishes that I got to taste and help judge during the fourth round of the WNC Chefs Challenge between Executive Chef Adam Hayes of Red Stag Grill and Charles Hudson, research and development chef at Sunburst Trout Farms. The second-story hall at Packs Tavern was filled to capacity with foodies from all across Western North Carolina, including guest celebrity judge John Fleer, the chef at Canyon Kitchen in Cashiers who’s racked up repeated James Beard nominations over the years.
Even though the Chefs Challenge lacks the melodrama of cable’s Iron Chef, the basic format is the same. Each team learns the secret ingredient for the night, then has 30 minutes to plan a three-course meal around it.
At last night’s challenge, the secret element was Crooked Creek Corn, a special breed of the vegetable grown here in the South and used by a handful of local chefs. It’s also the key ingredient in Troy and Sons Moonshine. Corn is a bit of a chameleon—subtle enough to be infused into dishes without overpowering, making it ideal for use in this sort of challenge. Then again, the chef has to be creative in order to make the vegetable standout in a dish. Take this plate for example: rosemary roasted venison loin with caramelized onion and mushrooms over grits with crispy cornmeal vegetables. Yeah, there’s a lot going on, so if you’re not careful, the caramelized onion and mushrooms will completely overpower the corn grits and venison.
Therein lies the beauty of these judged chef competitions, which are billed as the perfect blending of sport and cooking. Picture, if you will, two trained chefs with all sorts of training, painfully creating six innovative dishes for a room full of predominantly untrained amateurs who all think they know how to cook corn better than the pros. What you get is round tables full of people sniffing wine glasses and muttering things like, “But does that ramp garnish take away from the essence of the cracker?”
I know, it sounds pretentious, but it’s not. Because we all had fun, and all of the food we sampled was so damned good—a truth underlined by the fact that the professional judges (the people in the crowd who actually know what they’re talking about) had the two chef teams at a dead tie. In the end, after all of the votes were tallied, Sunburst Trout Farms came out ahead, but only by a tiny margin.
The highlight of the night, at least for me, was the shrimp sausage and pimento cheese grits with tasso gravy, prepared by Team Red Stag. I wasn’t the only person in love with this Southern delicacy—it scored as the number one dish for the night. But let’s take an honest look at the ingredients here. Shrimp sausage. Pimento cheese grits. Tasso gravy. Do you see anything on that list that doesn’t look awesome? No. You may as well serve a bunch of kids lollipops dipped in chocolate and sprinkled with Black Eyed Peas singles. You simply can’t go wrong with shrimp shoved into sausage casings then laid over grits heightened with pimento cheese and spicy tasso gravy. That’s the culinary sweet spot.
Team Sunburst Trout:
--Seafood Scrapple with molasses mustard and pickled cabbage
--Rosemary roasted venison loin with caramelized onion and mushroom grits with crispy cornmeal vegetables
--Cornmeal stack cake with Troy and Sons Moonshine caramel (Voted # 2 Dish)
Team Red Stag:
--Vidalia onion and crab bisque with a cornmeal cracker
--Shrimp sausage and pimento cheese grits with tasso gravy (Voted #1 Dish)
--Moonshine pie with apples, Troy and Sons Moonshine, and sweet bacon-grit cream (Voted #3 Dish)
Note: Each chef team can bring up to $100 of special ingredients to each challenge. Team Red Stag brought four pounds of pork fat that they didn’t use. Would using that fat have put them over the edge? Probably. But hindsight is 20/20, and I respect the team just for rolling with that much pork fat. That rocks.
Averill, his wife, and their three-year-old twins live in Asheville. He chronicles the family antics on his blog www.daddy-drinks.com.