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Take 22 pounds of chocolate, a lot of pork ribs, apples, garbanzo beans, collards, strawberries, and bacon; then bring in 60 wonderful friends and see what you can cook up. This was the second challenge of the WNC Chefs Challenge, held Tuesday night, March 27th, at Pack’s Tavern Century Room, downtown Asheville. With the assistance of two incredible teams of chefs, Chef Peter Fassbender of Seasons Restaurant at Highlands Lake Inn in Flat Rock and Chef Stewart Lyon of Boca in Asheville, they came together with their teams and thrilled us one and all.

The battle started with the chefs appearing bright eyed and bushy tailed, around 11th clock Tuesday morning at Pack’s Tavern. The began the day by unloading their gear, sitting down at the conference table, going over the rules of engagement, and in due time finding out what the secret ingredient for this night was. I asked the teams what they been preparing for, and the reply was seasonal vegetables, mostly greens. But my job was to shake things up just a little bit, keep them off their balance, and have fun at the same time. Chocolate, lots of Chocolate. That’s what they had to work with. Six dishes coming from the kitchen. Three dishes per team, 20 minutes between plating, and the battle was on.

Pack’s Tavern Century Room is absolutely stunning. From the old well worn and polished  wooden floors to the exposed ancient ceiling beams, with tall windows overlooking City County Plaza with children playing in the wading pool area,  jugglers and hula-hoopers practicing in the park, it is an absolutely beautiful location. The catering kitchen upstairs is sealed off from the dining area, making a perfect workspace to sequester the chefs from the audience. While the chefs had to share the kitchen, these two teams worked serenely together, and seemed to really enjoy each other’s company. This is important in a heated battle, sharing the pantry and equipment, while competing to see who is going to end up as the best chef in Western North Carolina.

I felt the chefs were so evenly matched in their experience and their teammates that I really had to mix things up, and keep the audience from guessing whose plates were coming out of the kitchen. So, I had both teams to plate dishes back to back. Here’s a listing of the plates and who is responsible for each.

Chef Fassbender’ team came out first with Chocolate Covered Bacon, Apple and Almond Slaw over Grilled Pineapple. I must say that the chocolate covered bacon was a most wonderful crisp chocolate covered salted delight. They could’ve been wrapped and placed in a box and presented as a birthday gift to me!

I knew there were two plates of ribs being served that night each slightly different and I needed to the break things up a bit. So next, Boca brought out their first entrée, a Braised Ribs Mole Negro with Chocolate Mac with Collards. The Mole sauce was excellent, the ribs tender, the collards spicy and a perfect complement to the dish. I was a bit lost with why the Choc Mac and Cheeses, but the audience was not!

Next I had Boca again to plate the next dish. Back-to-back plating is really hard, but both Chef Fassbender and Chef Lyon are experts in their game. Additionally, I wanted to break up the rib dishes for comparison so I needed to cleanse and refresh everyone’s taste buds.  I had Chef Lyon to then present their Sweet Potato Chocolate Bisque with Sour Cream Ice Cream. This is one of the finest dishes I’ve ever had the pleasure to bring to an audience. It was simple, tasty, cleansing; quite a surprise. Many diners mentioned how each taste of the bisque was different from the taste before. From the taste of saltiness, to the sourness of the cream, to the exquisite chocolate drops, really delighted the audience and was the highest scoring dish of the dinner. What a go Chef Lyon!

Then Chef Peter Fassbender brought forward his Braised Pork Ribs with Rice and Garbanzo Bean Tart with Poached and Pickled Shallot Salsa and Spicy Chocolate Sauce. For me this was a fantastic chocolate sauce drizzled over perfectly cooked ribs and complemented with a Peach and Pickled Shallot Salsa. To put each of these ingredients together on a fork, to savor the aroma, and to taste, it was an artistic delight! A friend of mine, wanting her husband to savor what he was missing, place some of the ribs and to-go container.  One of the professional judges ( and a chef) who as sitting next to her at the table, said you must not leave a drop of that sauce behind and proceeded to help her cover those ribs with the rick chocolate tangy sauce.

Chef Fassbender next plated the first dessert of the evening. A Double Chocolate Layer Sponge Cake with Strawberry Coulis. The Coulis is a sauce thickened through puréeing and slow evaporation. It was like hammock of chocolate floating in a strawberry field.

Lastly, Chef Lyon brought forward their Sweet Southern Biscuit, Candied Bacon with Chocolate Mouse, Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookie and Espresso Mocha Cream. It was almost too much! Everyone at this point was wide awake, eyes big as platters, their auroras buzzing from chocolate, guaranteed not to sleep this night, and anxious to find out the final judgment.

The two high-scoring dishes were the Sweet Potato Chocolate Bisque with Sour Cream Ice Cream and the Braised Ribs Mole Negro with Chocolate Mac with Collards, by Chef Lyon of Boca, followed by the  Braised Pork Ribs with Rice and Garbanzo Bean Tart with Poached and Pickled Shallot Salsa and Spicy chocolate Sauce by Chef Fassbender of Season’s Restaurant. However the final score was in favor of Chef Stuart Lyon. He now moves forward to the next challenge and will face the winner of next week’s battle.

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