Who likes cheese? Yeah? Well, me too, and guess what: We are not alone! On Sunday April 26th the first annual Carolina Mountain Cheese Festival took place, held on the grounds of the Highland Brewing Company, and the turn-out was stupendous, exceeding expectations by a couple hundred according to one source.
I had the good fortune to be a judge in the grilled cheese competition, which was organized by Carolyn Roy, one of the co-owners of Biscuit Head, and featured eight local restaurants, and one caterer from SC.
The competitors were: LAB, Mellow Mushroom, Petite Catering, Chestnut, The Local Joint, True South, King James Public House, Bouchon Creperie, and Rhubarb.
My fellow judges on the three-person panel were Robin Lenner from the local food organization ASAP, and Chef Jason Roy, also a co-owner of Biscuit Head.
First I want to say that the entire competition was very well organized from this judge’s point of view. We were seated at a table on stage, and the chefs prepared their grilled cheeses one-at-a-time on a couple of electric fryers over the course of two hours. There was an MC, Sandie Rhodes, who had good banter with the crowd, and interacted with the chefs and judges during the preparation and consumption of each entry. The score sheet was easy to figure out, and the tally at the end only took about 15 mins, and then the winners were announced! Easy peasy! It was fun, fast-paced, and fucking delicious.
The prizes for the winners were awesome! Three hand-blown glass “bleu cheese wheels” that looked really cool, and exactly like bleu cheese, also three cheese knives with hand-blown glass handles. I’m telling you, Man, very cool stuff!
I’ve judged at a few of these food contests, and this was the first time that it wasn’t a blind taste test. We knew exactly who was cooking and providing each sampling of grilled cheese. Chef Roy had previously worked with at least three of the entrants, and my buddy Chef Nohe from King James Pub was there, representing a restaurant that I openly gush over and occasionally work for. So, there was a high potential for bias, you would think, but all three judges were committed to fairness, and to simply determining which of the 9 competitors made and served the best grilled cheese sandwich that day.
I think we all did a good job at remaining objective, which was partly borne out by the fact that all three of us were more or less shocked by the hands-down winner of the contest: Mellow Mushroom, Asheville.
They crushed it. Crushed. It.
Their “French onion soup” grilled cheese sandwich was head and shoulders above the rest, and the rest were really fucking good, make no mistake about it.
Upon her first bite of Mellow Mushroom’s offering, I saw Judge Lenner close her eyes and go away somewhere awesome in her mind, floating off on a gruyere cloud… she was gone. I turned to Judge Roy. His eyes were super-wide. As he turned his head very slowly towards me, his entire facial expression and demeanor seemed to be saying, “GUHHHWHAAATHEHUHHH!?!”
I took a bite of my 1/3 of the sandwich…
Good. Lord. This grilled cheese sandwich was amazing.
Here’s a picture. Below that are the deets.
The highlights of this sandwich were:
• The bread – Sourdough, grilled in pork fat. So crispy, so savory, so awesome! It was by far the best bread-treatment at the competition. It was slightly charred, and just incredibly rich and crispy on the outside, while remaining light and airy on the inside. It did not sog-out like some of the other competitors’ bread.
• The cheese – Shredded gruyere, no other cheese, none was needed. It was melted perfectly. Like effing amazingly perfectly perfect. It was hot and creamy, and was the main feature and star of the sandwich, as it should be. Others in the contest over-loaded their grilled cheeses with extra stuff, and overwhelmed the cheese, as well as the judges. Mellow Mushroom didn’t stray too far from the original concept of a grilled cheese, and the judges took note of that.
• The onions – Holy moly, those onions. They were caramelized to within and inch of their lives – again, as they should be – and sauteed with ramps in some kind of pork fat/beef stock reduction. Can you say Umami City? They made this sandwich something extra special.
• Overall flavor – Once he recovered from the initial shock and awe of his first bite, Judge Roy said “this tastes exactly like French onion soup!” I told him, “That’s the name of the sandwich.” He didn’t know that, but it tasted so much like the thing it was supposed to taste like, he called it immediately. It was completely unmistakable, and a total success in translating the flavor of one amazing dish into the format of another.
• Presentation – Simple, not ostentatious or overly fancified, it looked like what it was: A very delicious grilled cheese sandwich. One raw ramp leaf was placed on each plate and we were instructed to bite the very end on the stalk if we’d liked to, but not to eat the whole thing. I ignored it all together. It was pretty to look at, but I knew that even the tiniest bite of raw ramps can be too much. I wanted to enjoy the sandwich on it’s own, and I certainly did!
All three of the judges scored this entry #1 with a bullet. No one else even came close to knocking them out of top position once we tasted this incredible sandwich.
When the winners were announced, I think everyone there was totally surprised, including William “Garr” Dillenger and Mike Walker, the two young cooks — not chefs, but cooks — who invented and executed this masterpiece. I’m sure these two promising young men had confidence in their sandwich, but with restaurants headed-up by James Beard nominated chefs, and some of the darling venues of the local food scene also on the roster, who knew that scrappy li’l ol’ Mellow Mushroom of Asheville would sweep the contest in a hands-down win that no one could dispute.
I think it was a really good day in the history of Asheville food contests, because it showed once again that the judging can be fair, the food will always speak for itself, and that any cook, chef, or venue can win accolades in this town if they put their best effort forward and don’t shrink from going head-to-head with the heavy hitters.
Congrats to Mellow Mushroom, Asheville! This has got to be a proud moment for them. When I contacted them the following morning, to ask if the award winning sandwich would be finding its way onto their menu, they replied, “if we can convince the corporate office that it’s a good idea, we’ll be adding it in the next week for a limited time.”
Which is a good reminder that, while Mellow Mush is a chain, the Asheville location is, and always has been the best and most unique link in the chain. We’re lucky to have them here!
Congrats as well to the runners-up Rhubarb and The Local Joint, who pulled third and second place respectively. Both offered a very tasty sandwich indeed.
Thanks to all the competitors, organizers, my fellow judges, Sandie and the people in the crowd! This was a really fun event, and I’m already looking forward to next year!
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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 about food strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook
Stuey may have found a new calling.
I actually found his comment that the judging was fair, coming from the ole judge himself, to be the funniest thing he’s written.
Congrats to the Mellow Mushroom team! Love an underdog victory.
Do you know the name of the glassblower(s) that created the prizes?
I know from chatting him up at the Farmers Market the day before that the glass items were made by Victor Chiarizia, who also makes some of the most amazing cheese in the area as Blue Ridge Mountain Creamery. He’s got a web site for his glassblowing under his own name, and for his cheese at CaveAgedCheeses … I’m leaving off the links to avoid going into moderation.
Thanks for the info. His glass is gorgeous.