It’s lunchtime in downtown Waynesville. Hungry bellies wander up the sidewalk in search of nourishment. It is the calm before the storm for Julie Katt as she awaits the midday rush.
“The key thing is the people,” she said. “You have to like to deal with people, to have patience with people, and for us, that’s what it’s all about.”
Louis Perrone loves being part of an Italian family.
“I come from a big family — always a reason to celebrate, always a reason to eat,” he smiled.
The ocean is a long way from Rick Miller’s kitchen. The kitchen is a long way from where his journey began.
“Back then I wanted to be a marine biologist,” the 61-year-old smiled. “And I can still give all the Latin names to the fish.”
The Mélange of the Mountains culinary celebration will run from April 10-13 around Haywood County.
When Doug Weaver looks around Haywood County, he sees potential.
“We’re on the fence, right in the middle of where it’s almost a scene,” he said.
Head chef and co-owner at The Sweet Onion in Waynesville, Weaver is at the forefront of a pioneering movement within the county and greater Western North Carolina to make his backyard a culinary destination.
Rather than spending months crossing Haywood County’s choice eateries off their list of places to go, culinary enthusiasts can get a taste of each all at once at an annual gala at The Gateway Club.
The Haywood County Chamber of Commerce will host its 8th Annual Mélange of the Mountains on March 26 at The Gateway Club on Church Street in Waynesville. Attendees will be able to sample food and drink from the menus of area restaurants.
“The refinement of the culinary arts in our region is why cuisine in Western North Carolina is current and delicious,” said Michael Fahey, president of the Western North Carolina Culinary Association and head judge of this year’s competition, in a news release. “Mélange of the Mountains gives the talented chefs of Waynesville a great venue to share their creations.”
The participating restaurants are a mixture of newbies and old pros like Nico’s Café in Waynesville.
“We do well at it,” said Charlene Smith, an employee at Nico’s. “It’s also fun.”
The competition can be pretty fierce with some heavy hitters signing up to present their best dishes. Other eateries participating include Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, the Waynesville Inn, Anthony Wayne’s, Frog Level Brewing Company and Sunburst Trout Company.
“I think (the competition is) very, very good,” Charlene Smith, an employee at Nico’s Café. “I think everyone brings their A-game.”
Co-worker Courtney Pottenger agreed, adding that the contest is “stressful” but “fun.”
Nico’s Café has competed every year and has placed in at least one category each year. There are several categories that each restaurant can compete in: meat, salad, seafood, soup, vegetarian, dessert and people’s choice. The most coveted prize is the Award for Culinary Excellence, which is given to the restaurant with the highest scoring dish.
“We (Waynesville) have very good food for a small town,” Smith said, calling it “5-star quality food.”
The event also promotes creativity. Nico’s Café crafts unique dishes, which it later features on its menu. Last year, the café created the Courtney salad, a strawberry and candied pecan salad that garnered a podium ranking in the salad category.
Although Mélange is on their minds throughout the year, Smith said that Nico’s owner Michele Pipitone usually spends a day deciding what recipes give the café the best chance at bringing home a first place title.
Neither Nico’s Café nor Sid’s on Main, a new restaurant in Canton, knew exactly what dishes they would showcase at this year’s Mélange in the Mountains.
Sid’s on Main owner Sid Truesdale said this year will be more about people trying and enjoying his restaurant’s food rather than winning accolades.
“Hopefully if they do (like the food), they’ll come see us,” Truesdale said.
The Haywood County Chamber of Commerce will host its eighth Annual Mélange of the Mountains from 5:30–8:30 p.m., March 26, at The Gateway Club.
Tickets are $35 for chamber members and $40 for non-members. The chamber will also have VIP upgraded tickets available for $60, which includes early entry into the competition to view the Chefs in action. Tickets are limited.
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.
By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer
Culinary connoisseurs will have a chance to sample the skills of a dozen local restaurant chefs at the third annual Mélange of the Mountains to be held from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday, March 29, at the Balsam Mountain Inn.