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Wednesday, 15 March 2006 00:00

A moveable feast: Mélange of the Mountains returns to Balsam Mountain Inn March 23

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By Michael Beadle

Succulent shrimp. Marinated roast beef. Creamy soups and sweet vegetables. And don’t forget dessert.

Get those taste buds bubbling. Local chefs are getting ready to showcase their finest culinary creations at the second annual Mélange of the Mountains 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, March 23, at the historic Balsam Mountain Inn.

More than a dozen of the area’s finest chefs will be offering their best dishes to the public as guest judges award the crème de la crème. It’s all part of an effort by the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce to celebrate local chefs and attract people to restaurants, bed and breakfast inns and various eateries available in and around Haywood County.

Tickets for Mélange of the Mountains are $30 per person for chamber members and $35 per person for non-Chamber members.

Last year, the chamber put this event together hastily as a fun way to recognize local inns and restaurants, but the outpouring of support and interest turned a one-time event into an annual feast.

“The chefs were all thrilled to have the opportunity to reach so many people at a venue like that,” said Daphne Carson, director of member services for the Haywood County Chamber. “We really want this to be a signature event for the county.”

It’s not often that the public gets to interact with chefs of a restaurant or for chefs to mingle with each other, Carson said.

“So they can show off — we want them too,” Carson said.

Chefs will be competing in the categories of meat, poultry, seafood, vegetarian, dessert, salad and soup dishes. Judges will score these entries based on presentation; menu and ingredients; creativity and practicality; and flavor, taste and texture. Medals will be awarded to first-, second- and third-place winners in each category. A category must have two or more entries in order to compete for awards.

In this second year of Mélange of the Mountains, the chamber is raising the bar by gathering a mix of writers and food-savvy judges including Scott Jones, the food editor for Southern Living Magazine; Charles Hudson, chef instructor at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College; and Dottie Trantham of the Appalachian Cooking School. (One of the guest judges is the Smoky Mountain News’ very own arts editor and reporter Sarah Kucharski.)

Organizers for Mélange plan to set up display tables with entrees from each of the chefs. One display area will be simply for viewing the dishes while another area will be for sampling these the various entrees, dishes and desserts.

Mélange gives chefs a chance to introduce a new dish or to show off an old favorite. Either way, any winning dish at the competition will be available at that given restaurant or inn for 30 days after the event.

For Pat Puckett, dessert chef at the Can’t Find It Inn of Waynesville, Mélange of the Mountains, is a great opportunity to see what other chefs are doing and to drum up new business.

“Since I’m so small, I really can’t afford to do much advertising,” Puckett said.

Thanks to last year’s Mélange, Puckett received a number of calls for business and got at least two bookings. In addition to creating desserts at the inn, she makes specialty desserts for weddings and private parties, and gives private lessons on how to create specialty desserts.

Puckett is known for her finely crafted edible flowers. For this year’s Mélange, she’s planning to present several desserts including truffles, petits fours, and an apple cake that’s from her grandmother’s recipe. Puckett loves to see people’s eyes light up when they see food arranged in a surprising way — like truffles in the form of flowers.

“You eat with your eyes,” she said, explaining the importance of presentation. If it looks good, you’ll at least try it, she said.

For Doug Weaver, the chef at Wild Fire Restaurant in downtown Waynesville, Mélange is a chance to chat with other chefs and meet some new friends. It’s also an opportunity for people to realize you don’t have to go all the way to Asheville to get a fine dining experience. At last year’s Mélange, Wild Fire took home two gold medals, a silver and a bronze. This year Wild Fire will be entering a dish in every category of the competition.

With so many chefs participating in Mélange of the Mountains, you may be wondering whether local restaurants will be open or fully staffed that night. Some will actually be closed and some will not have their main chef on hand that night — all the more reason to check out the food at Mélange.

For those chefs not participating in the event, the Chamber is extending an open invitation to come to Mélange.

Who knows? Perhaps the event will usher in a new kind of culinary tourism, attracting visitors to the region at a time of the year generally considered to be slower for businesses as compared to summer or the fall leaf season.

There are only 300 tickets to this event — last year, about 250 were sold — so organizers recommend getting tickets before the last minute. Tickets are available at the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce office at 1482 Russ Ave. (the log cabin building across from Barberville Baptist Church) in Waynesville. For more information or for tickets, call 828.456.3061.

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