BURGAW — It was a big night for Karoline Schwartz, a chef from the Rocky Mountains, who was one of the two final contestants in a restaurant competition that has been two years in the making in Burgaw.
Sunday night Schwartz secured the keys to 106-108 W. Courthouse Ave. for her concept Outland. She also will receive a $1 million investment from entrepreneur Richard Johnson, founder of the Own Your Own Restaurant Competition.
In the middle of the final round, a three-course dinner prepared for 70 VIP guests, Schwartz had another surprise waiting: Her sous chef proposed to her mid-competition.
“My cheeks hurt, I can’t stop smiling,” she said to guests Sunday evening. “It’s been a very big day.”
A graduate from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, Schwartz beat out 500 people to win the contest. Outland will be the chef’s first-owned.
Schwartz has traveled extensively in her 10-year career, moving between various restaurants around the country. During Covid-19, she landed in Tabernash, Colorado, to run a nearby a historic lodge at Rocky Mountain National Park in Grand Lake. She currently acts as its executive chef and general manager of food and beverage operations.
“They’re aware I’m here,” Schwartz said Sunday, “and have been really supportive.”
Acclimated to small-town life — Tabernash is one-tenth Burgaw’s 3,000 population — Schwartz said some of her favorite moments of the last 10 days spent in the Pender County town have been getting to know its residents.
“It’s important that the chef is really community-oriented,” said Mayor Olivia Dawson, one of Sunday’s VIP guests. “Our hope for the restaurant is it’s something the community rallies around.”
Schwartz was among the top 24 who had to participate in a town cookoff before the top 12 from the competition was announced. She was playing pool at a watering hole with a group of locals when she received the call from Johnson she would move forward to the top six, then narrowed down to two Friday, Oct. 27.
Johnson owns multiple properties in Burgaw. His goal is to revitalize the 143-year-old Burgaw historic town square, promote its preservation and recenter commerce. He already turned two buildings into successful restaurants: Fat Daddy’s pizza, owned by Jay Kranchalk, and Burgaw Brewing, run by Kevin and Emmaline Kozak.
Johnson said he reached out to multiple Wilmington restaurateurs — owners of Nikki’s and Sawmill Restaurant — two years ago about transforming a third location.
“But they all said the timing wasn’t right,” he indicated Sunday.
So Johnson began percolating on a restaurant competition scenario, with the idea to pitch it as a reality TV show as well. He hired camera crews to follow the process; where it will land is yet to be determined. However, Johnson said the concept of Own Your Own could work in other small towns in need of economic revitalization as well.
The entrepreneur — who operates Penderlea Farms in Burgaw — will help Schwartz build out the restaurant. The restaurateur will then have a “reasonable lease,” Johnson told Port City Daily in spring, to be calculated based on the total amount spent on the project.
“They will not need to pay back any of the principal,” Johnson said. “The first year’s rent will be based on a 5% return on the investment, which will gradually escalate to 8% by year 10. The rate is far below that of any commercially available space they might find elsewhere.”
There will be an option further down the road for Schwartz to buy the building, according to OYO spokesperson Jessica Maurer.
Schwartz will be moving to Burgaw in coming months to begin the process of opening Outland, slated to launch in the first quarter of 2025. The focus of her menu will be on locally sourced ingredients, working with farmers, and making food that is sustainable, hearty and approachable. Outland likely will open for lunch and dinner.
Clark Hipp of Clark Hipp Architecture — also behind the restoration of Burgaw Brewing — will help renovate the 2,200-square-foot building.
The finale showdown
Schwartz faced off Sunday evening against finalist Vincent Mangual, who had been called to rejoin the competition twice.
“I got brought back on my son’s birthday,” he said. “The hardest thing for me was watching my son cry … it’s been a roller coaster but also exciting.”
The chef, who runs Empire BBQ food trucks in New York, was cut from the top 24 after Burgaw’s town square cookoff on Oct. 21. He headed back to Brooklyn to be with his family but received a call that contestant Joe Friday, in the top 12, had to bow out due to a family emergency.
The top six were then announced, but Mangual didn’t make the cut. When another contestant, Penny Hayes, decided not to move forward, Mangual was tapped again.
“When Richard called me the second time to come back, it was a really hard decision for me to say yes. But my wife told me to do whatever I think is right, and I think what I did by coming back was right,” Mangual said.
Schwartz and Mangual, along with the other four finalists — Nathaniel Blanford, Christopher Carlo, Brandon Hunsaker, and Khristen Hunter — spent the week working in judges’ kitchens: Christi Ferretti of Pine Valley Market, Bill Scott of Cape Fear Seafood Company, and with the Kozaks at Burgaw Brewing, for example.
At Pine Valley Market, they performed duties for both back- and front-of-the-house. Ferretti had them chopping vegetables, while asking questions to get to know the chefs better. She also positioned them to work with customers to see how they would interact and present themselves to the public.
“Basically, I wanted to see how they could multitask,” she said. “We fed them a few mistakes on the menu on purpose to see if they would catch them; they did.”
Chefs had to create a meal in an hour from a box of seven mystery ingredients — salmon, rice, herbs, and asparagus, for instance — at a second eatery. In another challenge they had to devise a menu for a wine dinner and price it out in a short time span.
“I really loved that challenge,” Schwartz said. “I like wine — and math.”
All the chefs had business plans presented at the beginning of the week. Schwartz has experience working with profit-and-loss budgets for years, she said, often advising with other chefs on industry standards.
Mangual explained running Empire BBQ helped inform his approach.
“It’s experience in percentages,” he said. “Business is, you know, you grow your business, you grow your labor, you grow everything, and it all goes together.”
The whole process was one that drew the contestants closer. Schwartz and Mangual joked together throughout the dinner, showing a bond created despite facing a stressful week of challenges.
“The whole thing was a whirlwind,” Schwartz said. “But I would not have wanted to cook the final meal with anyone else.”
Both pulled from their families’ inspiration through the three-course dinner Sunday. Schwartz prepared a take on her “Nana’s mushroom soup,” in homage to her Hungarian roots for course one. It included sour cream, fresh dill and paprika oil.
Mangual presented a sausage-and-cheese stuffed mushroom with fresh mozzarella, crostini, roasted garlic and red pepper.
The second course was vegetable-forward, perhaps where both chefs shone brightest. Schwartz prepared a hearty Jerk-seasoned roasted acorn squash with coconut cauliflower puree, crispy leeks and watercress.
Mangual put forth a pureed pumpkin soup with hot honey, roasted apples and pecans, served with a grilled brie cheese and blueberry sandwich, tipping his hat to Burgaw’s well-known blueberry production.
Course three was meat heavy, with Mangual showing off his Puerto Rican roots but peppering in Southern flair: chopped roasted pork, coleslaw, pickles, stewed okra and rice, served with a vinegar barbecue sauce.
Schwartz went with a rich tomato-braised short ribs dish, served with bacon, atop goat cheese grits and carrot chips.
“I burnt the carrot chips earlier and had to do a new batch before dinner,” she said. “But as a chef, you learn to roll with the punches.”
According to Johnson, there wasn’t a landslide vote among the ballots cast Sunday. In fact, it was a close race from start to finish during the whole process.
Five hundred people applied to Own Your Own last spring. Mangual indicated he knew from the moment the top 24 were pared down from 64 that Schwartz was one to reckon with. He scrolled through photos posted on OYO’s website and called Schwartz’s “super intimidating” — donning her chef coat, arms crossed, a wry smile across her lips.
“The one that has their stuff together the most — she does,” he pointed to Schwartz while discussing the competition with his business partner and chefs in New York.
As the winner was announced, Schwartz asked Mangual to work with her at Outland. Though he didn’t commit, he hinted it’s not the last time residents along the southeastern coast could see him.
Schwartz told Port City Daily in the spring she applied to OYO on a whim, not expecting much to come from it. Sunday she said the competition has reinvigorated her passion for the job.
“I was at a place that I wasn’t sure what was coming next,” she said. “This has given me hope and I’ve never felt more like myself again as I have this week, meeting Burgaw residents and other great chefs.”
She said the times the finalists were announced definitely proved to be most difficult. Johnson agreed.
“I didn’t realize how emotionally involved I’d get,” he told PCD Sunday.
A lot of tears were shed through every cut, Johnson added — among the OYO team, judges and contestants.
“You get to know these people, especially my team who did so much of the heavy lifting through this process,” Johnson said. “I just came up with the idea, but they really did the execution. … And the chefs have become so close, so when we announced [participants in each round], it wasn’t necessarily people jumping up — they felt sad for their friends who were cut. I told the film crew, ‘I’m sorry it’s somber,’ and they’re like, ‘No, this is great drama.’”
When asked if Johnson will continue the competition next year — in Burgaw or elsewhere — he remained mum: “Stay tuned.”
[Ed. note: The piece has been updated to reflect Schwartz’s Hungarian roots, not Bavarian as previously reported. PCD regrets the error.]
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