Stu Helm, Food Critic, on the Asheville Wine and Food Festival

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

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stuhelmthefoodcritic_logo_MXBO_2014_72DPIBy Stu Helm

Hello Asheville!

I apologize in advance for how long the following piece is…

I know I know, I skipped last week, but I was busy! The Asheville Wine & Food Festival was a’happenin’ and I had two free VIP passes courtesy of Ashvegas and the evnt organizers. I even had two extra passes to the Grande Tasting courtesy of Foodlife Magazine that I gave away to a reader through a contest on my Facebook page. Oh, you say you’re not following my Facebook page? Too bad, so sad, no free tickets for you!

Dawn and I attended all three of the events, which were called Elixir, Sweet, and, as mentioned, the Grande Tasting.

Elixir was a speakeasy-themed evening of cocktails and such, hosted in a Greek Orthodox church over there in Montford. Nice. I like that. Gittin’ boozey in the church basement reminded me of being a teenager.

Of course, as many of you know, I don’t drink, so I had to depend on Dawn to give me the run down on the hard beverages, while I enjoyed the positive vibe, the catered food from Sweet Monkey Bakery (located way over there in Marshall), the non-alcoholic Ginger Ale from Barritt’s, which was on the “powerful” side of the ginger ale spectrum, but not so much so that it was painful to drink, like some “real” ginger ales can be. It was sweet and cold and bubbly and I loved it!

I also loved the various outfits! Some were themey and olde tyme, like 1920’s garb, or suspenders on the moonshine vendors, and that was all great, but most people just looked damn good in their nice tight dresses, killer shoes, and awesome hair-dos. Uhhh… most of the women that is. The men were, as usual, dressed in their frumpy assortment of blue, tan, grey, and white half-shorts, golf-shirts, and sandals. A few looked great in their nappy little vests and tight pants, but most of those were on the workin’ side of the tables. Did you know that in other countries they make fun of the way American men dress? It’s true. “You’re dressed like a Gringo,” one Mexican gentlemen might say to another if his friend shows up to the party in gray sweat pants, cheap blue sneakers, and a big ol’ T-shirt he got for free at a bank opening.


Sweet Monkey did a great job with the catering, even though I got one oysters rock-hard-a-feller (wakka wakka!) and commented to Dawn that I could have played air-hockey with it, hers was good and she enjoyed it.

The warm, savory, pastie-type pies that were being doled out were fan-fucking-tastic, and were actually pretty substantial, so that after we’d chowed-down on a couple of them, it was almost as if we’d eaten dinner. Later when we met the owner of Sweet Monkey she told us that was her plan, seeing as how people would likely be drinking a lot. Smart lady. Good pies.

One of my fave parts of the night was when a total stranger, who had no idea that I’m “The Food Critic,” put his hand on my shoulder from behind, and when I turned to look at his smiling face, he asked, “How’s that cake?” He’d seen me shoving it in my face like a frantic fool. “REALLY GOOD!” was my muffled response. Sweet Monkey made a rum cake that was really good. I ate several pieces.

I wish I could tell you more about the cocktails, but let’s just say NOBODY who was drinking them wasn’t enjoying themselves. My local RAD jam The Junction won some sort of high honors from the judges table, and Dawn agreed that their cocktail was best. She also said she liked the drinks from Chai Pani, Top o’ the Monk, and Buffalo Nickel. She panned the drink from Aloft, and called it a “daiquiri” with more than a hint disdain in her voice, however, my “how’s your cake” friend’s date said it was her fave of the night, so whaddaya know: taste is subjective.

The next night we went to The Grove Arcade building — one of my favorites in all of WNC — where the inside was closed-off to you gen-pop riff-raff so that the elite could eat sweets at Sweet! Yes, the event was called “Sweet.” Try telling that to people.

“Where are you guys going tonight?”



That’s exactly how that goes. Every single time.

“What did you guys do last night?”

“We went to Sweet.”


Every. Single. Time.

Sweet was awesome, and of course I knew more of the vendors personally and felt more at home than at Elixir, because while I do not frequent the bars much, I am constantly shoving sweets into my face-hole with both hands at nearly every bakery in downtown on a regular basis. If the nice ladies from Olde Europe think I come in there a lot, they should ask the folks over at City Bakes! I practically live there. In other words: I fucking love the fucking shit out of some fucking sweets.

Highlights of Sweet were:

• Karen Donatelli Bakery! – They’s my #1 JAM, Yo! You guys, ohmagawd, there was a table full of Karen’s goods laid out like Christmas morning at the richest kid in town’s house. I’m telling you, if you existed in a fairy tale land, where you rode in a carriage pulled by 12 white horses, and lived in crystal palace full of gold, your life would be catered by Karen Donatelli. She’s the fairy Godmother Queen of All Pastries. And, as I’ve mentioned before, her son Vinnie is very handsome, and nice, and polite, and talented, plus he probably smells like cookies. He might actually, literally be Prince Charming. I don’t know for sure.

• Sweet ‘n Celi – These guys were great, and scored high marks in all areas: The food was very good and very well made. I tried some particularly light, moist, delicious cake that tasted wonderful and had the perfect texture. The proprietor and her staff were friendly, enthusiastic, and attractive! Yay! They had a very good sense of design too, and their whole table looked great, including their logo, the wee paper cups they had specially printed, and the beautiful book of photos of their fantastic baked goods that was on display. Oh, and did I forget to mention: All of their products are 100% gluten free. I don’t give a shit, but I know that lot of you do.

Well Bred Bakery – They were giving out small versions of their Mountain Eclair and they were every emmeffing bit as good as their larger counterpart. Plus. I got a free flashlight! Yeah, man, Schwag! There was schwag of all kinds everywhere. I usually eschew schwag, but I love a good tiny flashlight. Thanks, Well Bred!

True Confections – Carole was offering small versions of her home made twix bars. I love you, Carole.

• Hey-oy! Sweet Monkey was at Sweet too! That’s where we met the owner, who was awesome, plus we ate some of her sweet treats, that included chocolate covered bacon on a stick. If that sounds great to you, it was.

• The other baconny highlight was the Maple Bacon ice cream from Ultimate Ice Cream. Holy shit. This was really good. It was basically maple ice cream, with big bits of awesome, high-end bacon added. Dawn and I agreed that it was our fave thing of the whole event. It was sweet and salty, and extra creamy, because you know what makes ice cream creamy don’t you? Animal fat. And you know what bacon has a lot of, right? Animal fat. Aaand you know what I’ve put on ten extra pounds of since I started writing these reviews? Uh, yeah, you guessed it.

• I also gotta shout it, shout it, shout it out loud (random Kiss reference) to my good friends at The Hop, who served their usual awesomeness to the crowd. They make THE best sea-salt caramel ice cream in town, plus I love their blueberry-kale ice cream. The cherry on top: They are some of the all-time nicest people ever! Yay, Hop!

• I also enjoyed some pistachio ice cream from a new place called Sugar and Snow where the lady did a weird ESP / Jedi Master trick on me and said the word “pistachio,” like, a nano-second before I did. I was like, “I think I’ll try the….” and she said “pistachio” just as I was saying “pistachio,” so that we both said “pistachio,” almost exactly at the same time, but it was as if she put the thought in my head. The pistachio ice cream was great, and, as it tuns out, those weren’t the droids I was looking for.

• Dawn tried the various wines and such, and of all the beverages, she was most impressed with the Nobel Hard Cider. Cider is her new thing. She’s all about it. She talked to the two guys from Nobel and they were really great, smart and funny, with a passion for their product. You should have seen the involuntary gas-face that one of them made at the mere mention of Woodchuck!

• Here’s my one complaint about Sweet: Where was the coffee? Any coffee? Anyone? Who has coffee? Could I get some coffee? Coffee? Coffee? Coffee coffee coffee??? I sure could have used a cup of coffee. Because, you know what goes really good with sweets? Coffee! If it was there, I didn’t see it, or smell it, and get anywhere near a drop of it. There was free water and I enjoyed that very much.

The next stop in this trifecta of food was the Grande Tasting on Saturday afternoon. As the name suggests, the shit was BIG. It was held in the Civic Center, a building that I feel like I watched a high school hockey game in once back in 1983, even though I’m 100% sure that I didn’t do that.

Dawn and I actually had General Admission tickets for the Grande Tasting, which meant that we couldn’t get in until an hour after the VIP ticket holders, but I thought I’d try this: When the guy said, “These are general admission, you’ll have to come back in an hour.” I said, “Yeah, I know, but I was hoping we could just come in now? Because I’m writing about it for Foodlife Magazine and” I wasn’t a dick about it, I was jus’ askin’? Well, a nice lady overheard, talked to another nice lady, we got the nod, and walked right in. It never fucking hurts to ask, and to not be a dick about it.

Well, holy-shit-sticks, it was crowded inside, and when the doors opened for realzies at 2 p.m., it was even more jam-packed. I already used up all my good zombie horde jokes in the piece I wrote for Foodlife, so I’ll do my best to come up with another analogy.

I am not awesome with crowds. In big groups, you people move way too SLOW!!! And you stop — Umph! — dead in the middle of the traffic flow like there ain’t nobody else in the world, and it’s irritating as fuck! Keep it moving, People, or pull it over, and for the love of God, do not park you ass in front of a sample table and camp-out for an hour, taking up space and hogging the samps. Get a samp, and step the fuck aside. Get a samp, and step the fuck aside. That is how it’s done. If you wanna talk to a vendor, step to the side of their table. You need to get out of the way, so that the other zombies can feas… Dang it! Sorry, I was going to come up with a different metaphor wasn’t I? Okay, let’s see… piranhas? Locusts? Ahh, fuck it, I’m going to stick with with zombies. This horde had only one thing on it’s collective mind:


I must have got bitten and infected with the samp zombie virus, because I turned into one of them almost immediately, except I was more like one of those fast, British zombies, and everyone else seemed like an old-school George Romero zombie. I was all, like, “Gimme samps, nom nom , grrrrr!” And everyone else was all like “I’m jus’ gonna hunker down here and gnaw on this one table’s delicious samplin’s for an hour or so.” I couldn’t get anywhere near the French Broad Chocolate Lounge table. Too thick with the undead. People love that FBCL stuff, and with good reason! I love it too, but I’ll get my samps another time, in a more civilized atmosphere. I live just up the dang road from their factory!

My four fave samps of the day were:

• The cold shrimp and lobster salad from a venue that I’d never heard of called Vue 1913. This shit was fuckin’ aye good, Yo, and it gets my top prize for the day. It was the A #1 samp at AW&FF. They were putting on quite a production too, with a wicked cool sprout display and a real showman chef working the crowd. And when I say this dish was cold, I mean it was colder than Jennifer Horton’s sna… what now? No Days of Our Lives fans out there? Okay, well, then I’ll just say the chef’s assistant was chillin’ that shit with liquid nitrogen, so yeah, it was c-c-c-cold.

• The Pani Puri from Chai Pani was great, and speaking of showmen, the guy working the Chai Pani table was awesome. He looked great and was so full of just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek enthusiasm, that I fell in love with him instantly. Plus the little fuckin’ thingy-bob pieces of Indian street food that they were giving out were frickin’ awesome. A crispy, hollow, bite-sized ball that his partner poked a hole in, and then he filled with some kinda cold soup-type stuff. He instructed the crowds to “Eat it all in one bite! Just one bite! All in one bite!” He was like a side show barker, pitching a deliciously subtle, yet bright, curry flavored oddity.

• The Fake meat from No Evil Foods. When I was a veg, I tried plenty of fake meat, and when it was good, I loved it. NFE fake meat is good. Really good. The “pulled pork” was moist and chewy and sheddy, and their sausage tasted just like sausage should. If their products were on menus in restaurants, I would order them. I just heard that the Asheville Mellow Mushroom is going to offer NEF sausage on their pizza. Yeah, man! Fake meat! Fake meat! Fake meat!

• Coconut Cake from Blackbird. You’d think that after stuffing my poor cake-hole with confections at both Elixir and Sweet, I’d be ready to slow my roll on the cake, but fuck that, Man. That ain’t me. I do not slow my roll when it comes to cake. The coconut cake at Blackbird is a Stu-Mom fave, and she’s absolutely right. It is awesome!

My least fave samp was the chicken liver paté from Farm Burger, which was just not my thing. The texture of paté mixed with that of the sweet jam they added was too mooshy for me, the crostini was kinda processed-white-bread-ish, and the sprouts seemed like an afterthought. The chick workin’ their table was super nice though, and I apologized to her for not liking the samples.

I wanna take to a sec to give it up to Farm Burger just for being there. They were at the Battle of the Burger too. I think they’re scrappy as fuck to show up at these events and pit their skills again some of the top chefs in town. Good for you Farmsburg, I like your fuckin’ attitude!

Maybe the biggest FAIL of the day for me was from my friends at Ambrozia, who ran out of food before we even got to their table, and it was only around 4 p.m.  There were 2 more hours of this event! I was particularly bummed because I like Ambrozia’s food and chef, and had heard from others in the crowd that their samps were awesome.

The big deal during the Grande Tasting was the Chef’s Challenge, which is a little bit like a live version of Chopped, with a secret ingredient, a pantry, and a timer. The secret ingreed was rabbit, from Imladris Farms, who were a major sponsor. Good ol’ French Broad Food Coop stocked the pantry. The event organizer Bob Bowles was one of the Co-Emcees, and he’s a very entertaining guy, so this was fun to watch. Dawn and I also amused ourselves by making fun of and bitching about every single other person in the room. That’s just how we is.

“That fuckin’ lady in the striped shirt is driving me crazy. Sit the fuck DOWN already!”

“I know it. And look at this dumb fuck. Who you waving at, Wavy?”

“Right? Fuck that guy. And fuck that old fuck at the end of the row too. He gave me the stank-eye when I skootched past him.”

“Oh, I agree. Fuck you, Oldie.”

Ha ha! We were reaching a tipping point of crowd-burnout.

The challenge ended with the 4 judges awarding Chef Ulfet Ozyabasligil Ralph of Blöm Supper Club the numero uno spot. You can read all about the dishes and deets on the AW&FF website.

The audience, of which I was a member, did not get to try the Chef’s Challenge dishes (duh) so I do not know what they tasted like. Good, is my guess. Really good. Dang it! No fair! I gotta get on that judges panel somehow. Maybe I can get the chick from Sugar and Snow to use her Jedi skills on Bob Bowles. “This is the Food Critic you’re looking for.”

So, that was the hat-trick of events that went down courtesy of Bob, Kiris Kraft, Melissa Mathews, and tons of other workers and volunteers, sponsors and participants. If you were there, you know what I’m talkin’ ’bout. That shit was fuckin’ good, am I right?

We have a KICK ASS food scene here in li’l ol’ Ashetown, and all over the WNC region. We’re so lucky.

I already can’t wait for next year’s fest!!!stu_helm_2013

Stu Helm is an artist and writer living in Asheville, NC, and a frequent diner at local restaurants, cafes, food trucks, and the like. His tastes run from hot dogs and mac ‘n’ cheese, to haute cuisine, and his opinions are based on a lifetime of eating out. He began writing restaurant reviews strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook in 2013.

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

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1 Comment

  1. Lauren September 2, 2014

    Hi Stu (and Hi to Dawn!!)~

    Glad you are back and happy to see you review the Wine and Food thingie. I was out of town but even if I HAD been in town, I would have skipped the Grande Tasting. I attended back when it was in the Ag Center (EEK) but at least you could walk around and it was not so crowded….then I went the first year it was in the Civic Center (bought that VIP joke of a ticket) and said REAL LOUD….”NEVER AGAIN”. It was so crowded and so over sold that I was miserable and I feel certain I did not get my fair share of anything for the $$$$. And I’m not a big fan of REAL CROWDED…TINY PLATES…NO WHERE TO SIT…ONLY 2 HANDS (what’s with that?). Bob Bowles is a real nice man and I admire him for pulling this thing off year after year…but I can’t give him my money anymore. Sigh. I’m sure that’s probably okay with him.


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