From searing to sautéing, the competition is hot at Mélange of the MountainsWritten by Bibeka Shrestha
Foodies can have it all at the sixth annual Mélange of the Mountains culinary gala in Haywood County.
Many of the region’s best chefs will assemble at The Gateway Club in Waynesville to show off their finest fare and engage in head-to-head competition. Attendees can see which restaurant’s chef triumphs in each category as they mill about sampling the finest offerings from area restaurants.
Meanwhile, local chefs will face the challenge of creating extraordinary cuisine with basic kitchen equipment. Judges will determine whose dish triumphs in eight categories, including meat, fowl, seafood, salad, soup, dessert, and vegetarian.
This year, chefs will also concoct their best interpretation of the traditional French crepe, as part of a new category, the Folkmoot Exclusive Dish.
After the heat of competition subsides, the chefs will serve up savory samples directly from the menu of area restaurants. Those who attend can also sneak a peek at the expertly presented winning dishes.
There’ll also be a garde manger, or “keeper of the food,” who’ll prepare hors d’oeuvres and carve fruits and vegetables.
Patrick Tinsley, food and beverage director at The Gateway Club, has competed every year since Mélange started six years ago. But there’s little that’s predictable about the competition.
“I’ve thought ‘That’s the best thing I’ve ever made in my life,’ and it doesn’t win gold,” said Tinsley. Other times, Tinsley creates a dish that he’s less than enthusiastic about, and it wins big.
Last year was a phenomenal year for Tinsley, who placed in seven of the eight categories and won five gold medals.
But there’s no guarantee about this year’s Mélange, and many casual establishments have overtaken fine dining restaurants in the past.
Judges are kept in the dark about which chef created each dish. They base their scores solely on taste and plate presentation.
For Tinsley, the competition isn’t any more stressful than a typical evening in the Gateway Club kitchen.
“Most chefs are used to stress, they’re used to getting things out quickly, used to being judged,” said Tinsley. “Everything you put out is going to be judged.”
What is challenging, however, is crafting an exceptional dish on what basically amounts to camping gear. Cooks have to resort to using butane stoves, though they’ll sometimes also use a toaster oven or microwave.
“It’s not as nice as cooking out of your own kitchen,” said Tinsley.
The medal is well worth the effort, though. Winners stand to gain heavily from the exposure.
“There’s 300 people up there listening to see who won,” said Tinsley.
Chefs who participate in Mélange are naturally competitive, and friendly rivalries have sprung up over the years.
“It’s nice to stare down at Doug at Sweet Onion [Restaurant] and flash the gold,” said Tinsley. “But he’ll also do that back to you when he wins.”
Most restaurants will enter into one category, showcasing a specialty they have, like a decadent cheesecake or a hearty soup.
“I personally think it’s a good, healthy competition,” said Art O’Neil, who owns The Gateway Club. “Most of these chefs are stuck in their kitchen all the time. Nobody gets to see them.”
O’Neil, who helped come up with the event, said the Mélange is a chance to showcase local restaurants and allow Haywood County chefs to meet each other.
“The more we do to support each other, the more likely we’re all going to succeed in our business, and keep people from driving to Franklin, driving to Asheville to find food,” said O’Neil.
Tinsley said the competition also gives food lovers a better idea of who’s in the kitchen crafting their favorite dishes at local eateries.
“People have a certain image in their minds of chefs,” said Tinsley, but not everybody shows up to Mélange dressed in immaculate chef’s pants and coats.