WNC Chef’s Challenge: It’s a chocolatefest, and Zambra wins

Jason Sandford

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

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wnc_chefs_challenge_2013From loyal reader and contributor Jennifer Saylor. Photography by Cindy Kunst:

Stop, think and eat: The Chef’s Challenge chocolate feast

At a work gathering last year over dinner, when colleagues learned I was from Asheville, I was treated liked a minor food authority, just by virtue of being from a foodie town. I explained what orzo pasta was and made recommendations.

Since we live in a foodie town, do we all need to step up our game as mindful diners? At Tuesday night’s Chef’s Challenge, a chef competition series, I feel like I was shown how to rethink eating chef-prepared food.

I was a guest judge–dining on steak and salmon, asked to fill out a card where I rated six dishes in a multi-course meal. You think about dinner differently when you’re asked to stop, think, and really consider presentation, originality, aroma, flavor…and use of the night’s special secret ingredient: CHOCOLATE.

Yes, the night’s chef-prepared dishes that would all feature not only chocolate, but chocolate from the French Broad Chocolate Lounge. If you’re jealous now, you should be.

Screen shot 2013-03-14 at 10.21.02 AMThe night’s competing chefs were Steven Goff of the popular Zambra, and Jon Santiago of the lesser-known Biltmore Village Inn, a seven-bedroom B&B in South Asheville. (Diners weren’t told who made what until the end of the evening, which made for some fun second-guessing of Goff’s style from us Zambra fans.)

Six courses and a wine flight included two steak dishes, salmon with cous cous, and two desserts. A fellow diner seemed overwhelmed by her hearty chunk of salmon (one of three meat courses), but once we all realized doggie bags are acceptable even at fancy six-course dinners, our evening seemed more lavish than a marathon of overindulgence.

If you’re looking to step up your dining game, try the Chef’s Challenge, or any of Asheville’s other chef events, from Blind Pig to a beer dinner. You don’t have to have a scorecard, but tonight’s lesson of pausing to absorb and appreciate originality, presentation, aroma, and taste will stay with me.

Let’s be gracious about our good fortune in living here among such riches, and take the time to know well what we are grateful for.

Read on for more about each dish from Tuesday’s chocolate-themed challenge.


Screen shot 2013-03-14 at 10.21.13 AMShredded duck confit tossed in chocolate mole served on a pan-seared grit cake with spicy slaw:
OK, don’t think a chocolate dinner consists of hot fudge and chocolate-dipped everything. The flavors of chocolate and cocoa were subtle traces throughout the night. Chef Santiago knocked it out of the park with his confit, a perfect accompaniment to the creamy grit cake. My favorite dish of the night. Delicious.

Seared salmon with chocolate-braised beets and chocolate oil, with chocolate vinaigrette: Chef Goff got creative with triple chocolate flavors almost too subtle to recognize.

Grilled chocolate-rubbed sirloin with chocolate fried onions and fingerling potatoes: Another strong entry from Santiago, turning steak, potatoes and onions into a creative, eye-catching treat. Again, the chocolate was subtle.

Chocolate-dusted strip loin with cocoa mole, chocolate-chipotle sweet potatoes and cilantro chow-chow: More steak after the steak? Chef Santiago’s dish was a savory delight, and my favorite blend of flavors.


Chocolate cinnamon roll with Kahlua chocolate gelato: Maybe a slight misstep? The roll was soft and tender and the ice cream creamy and tasty, but neither was a huge hit in flavor or presentation. The chef who stole hearts with a creative dessert was Goff, with…

Chocolate gnocchi in a chocolate cream sauce, with basil chocolate ice cream and raspberry meringue: A photogenic and creative way to get you to eat chocolate pasta and love it, this chocolate-brown, green and pink confection was a tasty hit, taking chocolate noodles off the novelty shelf and onto the dessert menu.


Congrats to Steven Goff of Zambra for the win! I didn’t learn the final totals, but I’m not handing out false flattery when I say it must have been close, and that both chefs deserve praise for strong presentation and a delicious meal.

Here’s to all our events honoring great food, great chefs, creativity, and community. Get out there and eat with awareness and appreciation, with mind and heart and brain and eyes, not just a hungry belly.

Jason Sandford

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

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  1. Chris Bennett March 15, 2013

    Hooray for Steven. Super nice guy who has earned everything has gotten. Can we find a new word to sub-in for foodie please, it’s like nails on a chalk board.

  2. danielle plainview March 14, 2013

    Those dishes look and sound gross.


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