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Taste of Wilmington fourth annual event grows, crowns new Top Chef

Taste of Wilmington Food and Wine Festival
Sun., May 15, 5 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Hilton Wilmington Riverside • $45
www.wilmingtontickets.com

A fresh new take on delicious: Strawberry shortcake sliders were just one of the tantalizing tastes at last year’s festival. Photo by Jeff Janowski/StarNews.

What started as a simple love for food and the local dining experience has become a sell-out hit in the Wilmington community. It all originated from one friendly question: Who’s the best?

With the hit show “Iron Chef” in mind, digital/print operations editor at StarNews and founder of the culinary gala Taste of Wilmington, Pam Sander, explains how the competition grew.

“In planning Taste’s ‘Top Chef’ in the first year, we realized we couldn’t have an event in which folks watched the chefs cook for hours without getting some tastes. We also knew that local fine-dining restaurants could benefit from the exposure.”

Benefit they did. With tickets selling out each year for Taste of Wilmington, local foodies have enjoyed their exposure to new restaurants they may not have considered trying before. With a program guide in one hand, and wine glass in the other, guests each year continue to navigate from food to wine to music with ease and enjoyment.

Each year the top three chefs are narrowed down from a larger voting pool. The process has evolved over a short period of time, Sander says. “This year we fine-tuned it even more by incorporating stop-gaps to prevent folks from voting numerous times. We also asked readers for suggestions online in advance of going live with round one and included more chefs during that first round.”

Though some may argue the flaws of the voting process—and perhaps other ways to ensure accuracy—Sander is certain there will always be a gray area. When it comes down to it, “anyone who says those guys are not rocking it in the food world have not tasted their food.” The purpose of the festival is not simply to be the competition to end all competitions; it’s for the community, businesses and competing chefs to expose the best of our culinary scene.

In fact, each dish will be judged on its use of  local goods. Produce and other ingredients for the competition have come from Lewis Nursery and Farms, Nature’s Way Farm and Seafood, Shelton Herb Farm, Southeastern North Carolina Food Systems, Motts Channel Seafood, Grassy Ridge Farm and Federal Point Farm. Festival founders have made it a point to tap local and seasonal sources, especially for the well-guarded secret ingredient the chefs are called upon to use during their cookoff.

Cactus was the focus the first year, while Duplin muscadines made an appearance in 2009 and garlic scape provided an interesting twist in 2010. In the past, the main ingredient used happened to be the popular purchase on the local market, leading Sander to be mindful of what they choose this year.

“We’re kicking around several possibilities for 2011,” she says. “One thing we talked about briefly sounded fabulous until local chef Tommy Mills said it could be poisonous if not cooked exactly right. While we were fine with the chefs showing what they could do with it, Betty Sue around the block may not appreciate the risk.”

The final three chefs this year include Marc Copenhaver, Kyle Lee McKnight and Keith Rhodes, all of whom have made careers of something that many people appreciate and enjoy: food. There is no doubt each of the talented individuals will bring something unique and delicious to the festival’s plate. However, the deep-seated theme of the festival is not in competition or the food, or even the chefs themselves; it’s more about the community they serve.

Marc Copenhaver of Marc’s on Market earned the title of Top Chef when it all began in 2008. Certainly recognized for his restaurant’s innovative approach, he has garnered fans for his monthly cooking classes offered in the restaurant’s own kitchen. The dining community praises Copenhaver for perfecting every dish with nuance and offering a foodie experience that goes above the standard norm.

“You can have a passion for food but it has to be more than that” Copenhaver says. “[You must know] customers on a first-name basis and know the comfort level people have when dining at a restaurant with a creative and unpredictable nature. There’s a certain amount of familiarity of the food we make; our approach takes a different twist on identifiable foods presented in unconventional ways.”

After 15 years in the kitchen, Circa 1922’s Kyle Lee McKnight has the knowledge and experience of a powerful competitor. As a first-time finalist, McKnight’s hard work—and that of his staff—have been recognized by the public. He says, “I personally don’t cook for notoriety; I cook to bring joy and happiness to others.”

The final contestant, Keith Rhodes of Catch Restaurant, also returns to the fire after his 2008 final showdown. Happy to be in the company of other chefs who take pride in their craft, Rhodes believes the event is more than just a championship round of skill and ingenuity.

“For me, it’s more about the community and not the competition…The community has really stood by us and we owe it all to them,” he says.

Rhodes is known for his restaurant’s use of local, organic foods—something he has praised long before the locavore movement became fashionable. It’s not simply his job but a lifestyle he wants to share. As he considers the festival’s progression, Rhodes would like it to eventually shift focus to the culinary education of the local youth community, too.

With the close proximity of Cape Fear Community College Culinary School, Rhodes says it’s important to get students more involved in the overall theme of the festival: local foods and community.“I’d really like this to focus on youth who are interested in culinary arts next year,” he divulges.

This year the festival features much more than the scrumptious scrimmage between these three amazing chefs. After the competition, chefs will get an opportunity to enjoy the festivities and greet their sated fans. Fine foods and beverages from top restaurants, wineries and breweries will be served alongside gleaming ice sculpture creations by Ice Sensations. The harmonious and original music of local bands the Sea Pans and A Few Good Liars will add to the occasion’s joviality.

The actual competition between the final three chefs is free and will be held earlier in the day on May 15 from noon to 3 p.m. The location will be on the riverfront, behind Cape Fear Community College Culinary School on Water Street, beside the Hilton. It’s a much needed space for the growing attendance, vendors and entertainment.

Further details can be found at www.starnewsonline.com. Tickets are only $45, available at StarNews’ ticket page, www.wilmingtontickets.com.

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