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Hello Asheville!

I am easily confused. Or, at least that’s what I tell people — mostly for comedy effect, and to be polite — when I don’t understand WTF they’re talking about.

As in…

“Chem trail Nazi Frankenstein bourgeois gangster world wide take-over, Maaan! Y’know what I’m sayin’?”

“No, Friend, I don’t have a fucking clue what you’re saying… but then again, I am easily confused.”

Y’see how that works? The truth is, most of the time, if I’m confused it’s because… Sometimes shit is just confusing.

Most recently, I was completely confused by the sequence and significance of the 5 separate events that make up the Asheville Wine & Food Festival, which are called Amuse, Essence, Elixir, Sweet, and The Grand Tasting. They seemed oddly spaced-out on the calendar, and the first three seemed very similar to me.

At first I assumed that I am too much of an idiot or novice to comprehend the inner workings of a major food festival’s organization, marketing, and promotions techniques, and that it was my own dumb fault that I was confused. Then I started asking other people if they knew the score, and everyone else seemed as confused as me, if not more so.

Conclusion: Sometimes shit is just confusing.

My first plan of action to alleviate my confusion was to ask questions at the premiere event, Amuse, which snuck-up my ass unexpectedly, and happened last week.

Now, y’see…  that right there, that’s confusing.

Why did the first event of AWFF happen in May, when the three main events don’t happen until the end of August? And to add to the confusion, the 2nd event, Essence, happens in June, but no AWFF events take place in July.

Why, Lord, why-eee?!?

My plan to find Answers at Amuse started off okay, but fell apart as soon as I began stuffing food in my face upon entering the venue. Yes, I did get a chance to chat with two of the main AWFF people, Bob Bowles, and Kris Kraft, and Bob explained some stuff to me… that mostly got lost in the frenzy of eating, voting, taking pictures, and talking to all of the participants.

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L-R: Stu Helm, Bob Bowles, Dawn Roe

After the event, I decided that my next plan should be to write my questions down, and e-mail them to someone, then perhaps do a video interview at some point as well. I’m still working on setting up the video shoot, but in the meantime, Kris Kraft was kind enough to answer my questions by email.  Below is our exchange, and below that is my account of the food and festivities last week at Amuse.

INTERVIEW WITH KRIS KRAFT OF AWFF – May 6th, 2015

Stu Helm: Why are Amuse and Essence happening in May and June, and not in August when the rest of the AWFF take place?

Kris Kraft: We had the high quality problem of having to expand ELIXIR this year because of the huge response from mixologists. That being said, we also wanted to give a fresh face to the Chefs Challenges, which used to start way back in February. So we decided it was best to do two events earlier in the season, but not in the late winter. This gives us the opportunity to expand our exposure period before the August festival.

SH: I understand that Amuse and Essence are parts 1 and 2 of the Chefs Challenge. Can you break down the the steps of the challenge? What was determined by Amuse, re: the next step?

KK: These two events are the qualifying round for not only the chefs moving-on this year, but again breaking the mixologists into two rounds before a final showdown. The next step is that we will take the top two chefs from Amuse, and in turn Essence, and advance them to the finale at the Grand Tasting on August 22nd. Giving us the final four. Then the top three mixologists for each event will move on to Elixir in a similar style to last year’s competition. While we won’t have chefs competing at Elixir there will be food provided, similar to last year, to go along with the competition with higher stakes.

SH: Who won or placed on Friday at Amuse? For cocktail? For small bite?

KK: Hollie West placed first, from Sweet Monkey cafe in Marshall. Steve Goff representing his renegade self was in second. The mixologists in respective order were Noah Hermanson from Sunny Point’s newly crafted bar program, Justin Ferraby with his playful cocktail from PULP was second, and representing Steve Goff on bar was Spencer Schultz from Rhubarb in third.

SH: Is “Amuse” a shortening of the term Amuse-Bouche, and should it be pronounced “amooze” or “am-use?”

KK: We are calling it am-use. It was two fold for us this year. We are working under the theme of culinary circus so we went with the amusing whimsy that word provided, while also meaning “starter” or “to tickle your palate” it was perfect for our first event of the season.

SH: What is Essence, and how is it a distinct event from Amuse, and Elixir? They seem very similar. Do all three involve cocktails and small bites? Are all three part of the Chefs’ Challenge?

KK: Amuse and Essence are crowd voted qualifying rounds for two competitions. One for the mixologists, who’s grand finale is ELIXIR. The chefs will then move on to the Asheville Scene Chefs Challenge in August as well. They are similar, and yet all very different. The inspiration for each events offerings are slightly different, the competitors are different, and in the end Elixir is the grand finale for all things liquor: mixologists, cocktails, and distilleries. You will find far less distillery presence at the Grand Tasting this year, so we wanted to really showcase them in other ways. Both Elixir and the finale of the Chefs Challenge will be voted by a judging panel vs the crowd vote.

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L-R: Kris Kraft, Stu Helm (wearing what is apparently my one and only facial expression.)

Okay, and there you have it. I think. I did get lost here and there along the way, but I reread Kris’s answers a couple of times and here’s the BID as far as I can ascertain:

AM– — USE – Friday, May 2nd, 2015 (already happened)

• Round one of the Mixologist Challenge – Crowd-voted winners moving on to compete at Elixir in August are Noah Hermanson (Sunny Point), Justin Ferraby (PULP), and Spencer Schultz (representing Steve Goff)

• Round One of the Chefs Challenge – Crowd-voted winners going on the compete in the Finale at The Grande Tasting in August are Chef Hollie West (Sweet Monkey) and Chef Steven Goff (Unaffiliated).

ESSENCE – Friday, June 26th, 2015

• Round two of the Mixologists Challenge – Crowd-voted winners to compete in the finale at Elixir.

• Round two of the Judges Challenge – Crowd-voted winners to compete in the Finale at The Grand Tasting.

ELIXIR – Thursday, August 20, 2015

• Finale of the Mixologists challenge – Winner selected by a Judge’s panel.

SWEET – Friday, August 21st, 2015

• No competition. Just an ass-load of amazing sweets… and coffee I hope!!!

THE GRAND TASTING – Saturday, August 22nd, 2015

• Finale of the Chefs Challenge – Winner selected by a Judge’s panel.

There. Now, if that ain’t as clear as can be, I don’t know what the fuck is. You can learn more on their web site: http://ashevillewineandfood.com/.

Now here are my thoughts on the Amuse event.

AM– — USE  –  MHCC Event Center

First of all, I just wanna say that it was really great to see my friends Sam and Steven Goff again, and taste the amazing food that Chef Steven had to offer. I have to admit that I had a slightly emotional response to seeing him at this event, cooking away just like always, and I actually got little choked-up and had to walk away! Weird. I’m weird. I went back later and ate his amuse bouche and it was a very typical — typically amazing — Goffesque offering of pork belly and pickled stuff, but with a “circussy” twist of popcorn and cotton candy and peanut sauce. (As Kris Kraft said in the interview above, the theme of Amuse was The Circus.) I gave Steven’s Amuse-Bouche very high marks of course, and I was super-happy to hear that he was one of the crowd-voted winners who will move on in the Chefs Challenge. Yay!

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Steven confided that doing competitions was definitely more difficult while he’s currently not affiliated with any restaurant, but that he’s wholeheartedly committed to the Chefs Challenge, and remaining active in the culinary scene.

I was also happy to hear that Chef Hollie West of Sweet Monkey was a winner!  Her three bites were all equally amazing, and her presentation was super impressive, especially on the crab meat and star fruit appetizer, which tasted as good as it looked.

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I gave her high marks on this dish, as well as on her kale/steak tatar-wrap thingy-ma-ding, (not pictured), and her salted bacon/chocolate mousse that came in a wee chocolate cup.

I usually eschew chocolate, as it can give me intense headaches, but this li’l fucker looked so damn good, I bit the bullet, crossed my fingers, and took a handful of Advils later. Totally worth the risk. It was awesome.

Bacon has been king o’ the culinary heap for a long time, and like anything that stays too popular for too long, I’m starting to hear people talk shit about it as an over-used ingredient, calling it “too easy,” and even “almost like cheating.” Some folks are turning away from our friend Bacon, and it seems to be losing a little bit of its celebrity status… but obviously, it’s still FUCKING AWESOME, and Chef Hollie really knows how to use it properly, and I hope she never stops!

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MMA fighter Jimmy Smith always says “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” Yay, Bacon!

The rest of the food at this event ranged from very good, to pretty good, to not so great, as it tends to do at these types of things.

Nothing was terrible, but any offering that I couldn’t fit all in my mouth at one time, in one bite (Anthony from Strada, that was practically a whole freaking taco!) got a point off from me, and a couple of things just weren’t amusing my bouche enough (Mission Hospital) to score competitively on my tally sheet.

Yeah, that’s right, I just said Mission Hospital. They were there. Representin’.

I have to admit, there was a very real psychological phenomenon going on in my head when I heard the word “hospital,” in relation to food. Plus, their duck confit simply didn’t do it for me. Not amusing enough. And, too, also… it came from a fucking hospital.  EWWWWW! Just kidding. Kind of. That “yuck factor,” is something that Mission is absolutely, most definitely, without a doubt going to have to overcome at every single food event that they participate in. I sometimes do branding for a living, and they might wanna rebrand their kitchen as “MH Cuisine” or some shit like that for these food challenges. I dunno, but I’m telling you that “Hospital food” has a certain reputation that is going to be difficult to surmount in a crowd-voting situation. Don’t get mad, Mission Hospital, I’s jus’ truthin’!

Anyhoo.. that’s the food, now for the cocktails. How were they? I wouldn’t know, I don’t drink… as I’ve stated many times.  My dad used to remind me that the second “A” in “AA” stands for “Anonymous,” but I’m not in AA, so I’m always blabbin’ about my “I don’t drink” status. Sorry, it might be annoying, but it has paid off for me, because now mixologists will sometimes offer me a non-booze-based concoction of their own invention to try. That’s very nice!

The winning mixologist at Friday’s Amuse event, Noah Hermanson from Sunny Point, made just that offer to me, but I totally forgot to go back to his table to take him up on it.

Dumb dumb stupid stupid Stu… IDIOT!

Oh well, next time fer shizzle. Which I guess would be at Essence in June… which still seems like a long wait to me, but whatever… I’ll see you guys there!

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stu_helm_2013Stu 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 about food strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook 

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