Saturday, December 9, 2023

12 chefs dwindle to 6, then 2 as final cook-off nears in local restaurant competition

The top 12 contestants of Own Your Own in Burgaw, a restaurant competition, will dwindle to six by the end of Monday, Oct. 23. (Courtesy photo)

[The top six chefs were announced Monday evening after press and include Nathaniel Blanford, Christopher Carlo, Brandon Hunsaker, Khristen Hunter, Karoline Schwartz, and Penny Hayes. Hayes withdrew after the announcement and Vincent Mangual was invited back to take her place.]

BURGAW — Two hundred locals and seven official judges turned out Saturday to help choose a dozen chefs to move forward in Burgaw’s Own Your Own. The culinary competition had contenders go head-to-head in a town-square cook-off. 

READ MORE: Local culinary competition heats up, 24 finalists vie for $1M and Burgaw restaurant

Founded by Penderlea Farms owner Richard Johnson, who also runs Burgaw Now, OYO will crown one winner this week. The person will receive a new restaurant at 106-108 W. Courthouse Ave. in historic downtown Burgaw and up to a $1 million investment, provided by Johnson.

The competition is part of Johnson’s goal to reinvigorate Burgaw; he bought seven buildings in town a few years ago. Two have already been turned into Burgaw Brewing and Fat Daddys’ Pizza. Johnson started OYO in the spring to transform another space downtown, and received more than 500 applications, representing 26 states, from chefs and up-and-coming restaurateurs who wish to operate the eatery. 

On Saturday, the crowd helped narrow the OYO field in half from 24 semi-finalists. As part of Burgaw’s weekend Autumn Fest, chefs prepared signature dishes and showcased design aesthetics they would use in their restaurant.

The 12 contenders voted upon include five North Carolinians, including three from the tri-county region, as well as six from other states and one from out of the country, Canada.

  • Nathaniel Blanford, Cincinnati, OH
  • Shawn Buskirk, Holly Ridge, NC
  • Christopher Carlo, Waterford, MI
  • Mandy Chow, Wilmington, NC
  • Matthew Cole, Winterville, NC 
  • Zachary Fabian, Jersey City, NJ
  • Joe Friday, Toronto, ON Canada
  • Penny Hayes, Myrtle Beach, SC
  • Brandon Hunsaker, Escondido, CA
  • Khristen Hunter, Wilmington, NC
  • Karoline Schwartz, Tabernash, CO
  • Bart Weber, Hickory, NC

OYO’s Jessica Maurer said the scores were neck and neck, indicating the scope of talent from the batch of competitors.

“We were impressed that so many community members really had taken the time to ask the chefs specific questions based on the research that they had done,” according to Maurer.

OYO has posted videos and biographies of the contestants throughout the process so people could be prepared upon attending the cook-off. The team staggered in 50 locals at a time to meander the town square through each pop-up tent housing makeshift kitchens. 

Public participants had to fill in scorecards, ranking the top dozen and the best three, as well as categorizing the chef’s personality, food presentation and taste, and concept overall. Tallies were utilized with results from the competition’s official judges — Christi Ferretti of Pine Valley Market, Myra and James McDuffie of Mema’s Chick’n & Ribs, Keith Rhodes of Catch, Bill Scott of Cape Fear Seafood Company and Kevin and Emmaline Kozak of Burgaw Brewing.

Ferretti arrived early Saturday morning ahead of the event to gauge how the finalists handled set-up. Winds were breezy, something beyond their control, as fryers and were powered up and sternos lit.

“I wanted to see how they adjusted to unexpected challenges,” Ferretti said. 

She’s been in the restaurant industry for more than 20 years and a large part of her business is catering, so Ferretti understands obstacles and unpredictability of making a kitchen work outside of normal amenities. As well, she has first-hand experience on its approach.

“Are you rolling with the punches and having a good attitude?” she asked rhetorically. “It’s important. One of the contestants was really struggling with the wind and getting his fire grease up to temp because of where the booth happened to be. But his attitude was great and it didn’t deter him.”

Ferretti said the food was plentiful — “I was beyond stuffed when I left,” she said — but it was conversations she had with the chefs that drew her in. In a town of 3,000 residents, Burgaw has a laid-back attitude and small-town community appeal; Ferretti wanted to see how the chefs prepared for that transition.

“You could tell the ones who had no clue what Burgaw was and you could tell the ones who really did their homework,” Ferretti said. “Plenty of people understood that they needed to be community-minded — they’re not going to be an island.”

She also inquired about outreach beyond the restaurant. This was especially relevant to some of the entrants who were serving more ethnic foods. Zachary Fabian of New Jersey hopes to open a concept called Fred’s Garage; he served coconut koji prawns with crispy rice. 

“I asked him: ‘How are you gonna explain what koji is to your diners?’” she said. “Because owning a successful restaurant is more than just serving food. And I heard so many different ideas that were impressive: cooking classes and tasting days. You could tell they understood more would be needed than just turning on an open sign.”

On Monday, contestants are meeting with judges Scott and the McDuffies, and Rodney Johnson from U.S. Foods and co-owner of Carolina Beach’s Stoked to hear more about their business plans. During these sessions, chefs will home in on the financial analyses of their pitches.

“Judges want to see if contestants have looked into the demographics here,” Maurer said, “if they researched existing restaurants and what will work in terms of how much are people willing to pay per ticket. What will work for this area — are they willing to spend $30 a head for a more upscale restaurant, or what are they willing to spend for lunch?”

She said they’re also working through the finer points of salary pay, number of employees and if health insurance, for instance, will be offered. The top six will be announced after the meeting Monday. (This will be updated post-announcement.)

The final six will then spend Tuesday through Thursday in area kitchens. They’ll be working two-hour shifts at the judges’ restaurants — Pine Valley Market, Cape Fear Seafood Company, Burgaw Brewing and Catch. The goal is to see how their work-flow and personalities fare in a kitchen.

“It’ll be two people in a restaurant at a time,” Maurer said. “They’ll all be given the same challenges and tasks to just see how they do on their feet.”

Contestants will be doing lunch shifts at Pine Valley Market, according to Ferretti. She plans to have them engage with customers but also see how they rise to the challenge of adapting in a new environment.

“I want to see common sense, I want to see initiative,” she said. “They’re being thrown into a kitchen that is foreign to them. So there’s going to be some, ‘Oh, God, what’s going on?’ in a sense. But I’ll be looking at how they jump in to help.”

On Friday, deliberations will take place among the judges and OYO team for the top two finalists to be announced. Those chefs will have the weekend to procure local ingredients to prepare for a three-course dinner served to 50 VIP guests — town politicians, the OYO team and judges — on Sunday, Oct. 29. 

The guests at the dinner will weigh in on the final vote with the judges, OYO team and Johnson determining the winner. The top toque wearer will receive keys to the restaurant that night.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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