Mélange a night of foodie fun

Culinary contest to be March 26
Mar 19, 2012
Photo by: Stina Sieg

Every spring, people around here hunger for a certain competition of skill, endurance and grace. These fans are often fiercely devoted to one team and aren’t afraid to say so. In their heart of hearts, however, even some ardent groupies will admit they’re not really looking for their opponents to be crushed. They want a good matchup, with everybody giving it their all.

No, this isn’t March Madness. It’s Mélange of the Mountains, and the eighth annual culinary contest is coming right up.

Though the event, headed to The Gateway Club from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. this Monday, March 26, may have less cultural significance than a certain series of basketball games, it definitely has a lot more audience participation going for it. Equal parts foodie festival and culinary contest, it lets locals see behind the curtain of their favorite eateries. A Mélange ticket means not only getting a chance to meet local chefs, but to sample their very best efforts. By the end of the night, a host of winners is always crowned, but only after attendees and official judges eat their way through several categories of gastronomical delights.

For chefs like Daniel Morris, this is the time to pull out all the stops.

“We strive to be the best we can be,” he said.

As the executive chef at the Gateway’s Anthony Wayne’s, Morris is used to the nightly pressure of making memorable meals, but also knows Mélange is no ordinary evening. Instead of being in the background, he and the rest of his cooking crew are prominently on display, chopping and stirring and plating for a curious audience. For Morris, who was also in the contest last year, Mélange is kind of like being in a sporting event and being on stage, rolled into one. It’s fun and nerve-wracking at once, and, like any competition, it feels great to win.

Smiling, he described how scary and exhilarating it was last year to wonder if the judges would call his name or not. It turned out that he didn’t have to wonder long. The Gateway’s team, led by him, ended up winning six awards, including three first-place commendations.

No wonder he’s coming back for seconds.

Though he was completely tight-lipped about his planned dishes, Morris sounded excited about them, not to mention the prospect of representing the Gateway once more.

“I’m very proud of where I work and what I do here,” he said, “and events like this help fuel that fire.”

Mélange veteran Michelle Pipitone, owner of Nico’s Café, knows what he’s talking about. She feels it every day at her homey café in downtown Waynesville, and it burns a little brighter with each Mélange award she earns. She can’t even remember how many she’s won in the last three years. In 2011 alone, she took home three.

“We do it because it’s fun,” she said.

But Mélange has another benefit, too. By competing with fancier, pricier places (and often winning), Nico’s gets put on a high-end stage, and Pipitone knows that’s good for business, especially since she also caters large events.
When asked if competing against so many big-wig restaurants makes her proud, she responded with an immediate, “Oh, definitely.”

“We’re not just a little sub shop,” she said, explaining that Mélange is the perfect place to show it.

She, like everyone else at the evening, is looking to make a memorable mark, something fellow restaurateur (and new competition) Gary Corman gets completely. Though Bourbon Barrel, which he co-owns with fiancée Ashley Owens, is too new to have competed in last year’s Mélange, Corman has several culinary competitions under his belt from his days in the Nashville food scene. He saw those events as fun yet challenging proving grounds, and that’s how he’s thinking about this upcoming contest. Though plenty of patrons have found their way to his comfortable, classy Hazelwood establishment, he wants to  let everyone to know that his doors are open wide.

“We really think there are a lot of people who don’t know who we are yet and, hopefully, by the end of Mélange, they will,” he said.

Like everyone who’s competing against him, he hopes to win the judges over with both the quality of his team’s cooking but also the inventiveness. Competitions like this one are the place to both wow people and surprise them. He then alluded to having an “edgy little thing going on” with his collard greens, the ingredient required for a certain category.

“But I’m not going to tell you,” he said, in true competitive form.

While he kept the secrets behind his impending dishes under wraps, he made no effort to hide his excitement about the upcoming show down. Instead of playing it cool and pretending like he didn’t care, he made it clear he’s  into this, even though the awards are little more than bragging rights. This is about “friendly competition,” he explained, but there’s also more to it than that.

“Really, it’s about people who enjoy food doing the best they can,” he said, perfectly encapsulating what makes Mélange so much fun.

For tickets and more information on Mélange, slated for 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Gateway, 37 Church St., call 456-3021 or visit www.haywood-nc.com. This year’s competitors include: Anthony Wayne’s, Nico’s, Bourbon Barrel, The Swag, Bocelli’s, Cork & Cleaver, Sid’s on Main, Harrah’s, Pisgah Inn and Lake Junaluska. Fontana Village is pending. Other participants are Sunburst Trout, Headwaters Brewing, Frog Level Brewing and Empire Distributors.

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