Gentlemen, wield your weapons — the Queen City has called to claim her culinary king. And how will she determine the winner of this honor? With Creative Loafing's first-ever Iron Fork competition, naturally.
The event, which takes place Wednesday, April 17, at CenterStage@NoDa, is inspired by the Food Network's hit show The Next Iron Chef. In this version, five of Charlotte's top chefs will vie for the coveted "Golden Fork" award (not to mention bragging rights) by creating signature dishes using a secret ingredient. Proceeds will benefit Ace & TJ's Grin Kids, a nonprofit charity that offers special-needs kids and their families trips to Walt Disney World.
So, let's meet this year's Iron Fork contenders. They are men of a noble culinary character, chosen by CL's readers as chefs who best represent Charlotte's culinary offerings. We sat down to learn a little more about them before they enter the lion's den. Here are their stories.
- Photos by Jim McGuire
Chef Geoff Bragg of The Peculiar Rabbit
If there's one ingredient no cook can do without in the kitchen, it's the game-changing agent that is good old-fashioned elbow grease. Just ask Chef Geoff Bragg. "I never shied away from grunt work, and I still don't." He's plugged away at restaurants all over town ever since he was legally able to do so, working his way up from taking direction in the dish pit to running the show at the Plaza-Midwood gastropub, The Peculiar Rabbit. Admittedly not a "cart-wheeling, fist pump sort of guy," he humbly looks forward to working alongside the other contestants, and counts the sense of camaraderie among them as one of the perks of the Iron Fork experience.
Creative Loafing: Your dad would cook for fellow soldiers in the army and your mom comes from Vietnamese stock. Did cafeteria-style cuisine and Vietnamese tradition make their way into your cooking philosophy?
I guess it influenced me to be receptive to outside-the-box ideas and ingredients. You have to understand that the Charlotte I grew up in [early '80s] was nothing like the Charlotte we live in now. I was one of four Asians in my elementary, middle school and high school. High-end eating was done at Bennigan's (remember that?), and Vietnamese was relatively unheard of except as a backdrop for M.A.S.H. I was constantly introducing my friends to crazy dishes while at the same time I could count on my dad for a fried fish dinner every Friday at the Hide-Away Inn on Monroe. I have a deep love for both cultures that in turn gives me an appreciation and perspective for many other cultures. Even as a child, different cultural traditions and observances fascinated me. What I found most fascinating, however, were not so much the differences as the similarities.
How did you go from open-minded taste tester to working in kitchens?
My very first cooking position was under Chef David Stowie at The Rainbow Deli at their Arboretum location many moons ago. We still are friends (he's the food director for Charlotte Catholic now). While in Athens, Ga., attending the University of Georgia, the girl I was dating was French. She suggested I go to culinary school and look at being a professional cook. That was in '92, and I decided to go to Johnson & Wales at their Charleston location. That was an exciting time, and I worked with many excellent chefs and restaurant people. Working in the industry in Charleston coupled with my education at J&W sort of sealed my fate, I guess you could say.
This is your first Iron Fork-style competition. What challenges have you faced that you think might give you an edge?
My edge? My incredible sous chef, Brent Martin. I think most working chefs would say their everyday work life prepares them for something like Iron Fork. You can never tell what is going to happen during service. You may be shorted an ingredient that was necessary for the 100-top you have coming in an hour, so you have to improvise. Your No. 1 grill cook calls out sick the same day as your dishwasher. What are you going to do? Ultimately, our everyday, just like the Iron Fork, teaches us to be fluid and to roll with the punches.
Chef Luca Annunziata of Passion8 Bistro
No labor of love can be sustained without the expectation that it will one day yield fruits ripe for the reaping. When Chef Luca Annunziata opened Passion8 Bistro with his wife Jessica, the couple chose the name "Passion8" in hopes that the business would embody their appetite for a life lived with serious gusto. It's Annunziata's reverence for romantic hospitality that sets him apart. At 17, his quest to deliver the perfect dining experience spurred him to leave his hometown of Sorrento, Italy, and sharpen his skills in kitchens throughout London and Germany, Austria and Switzerland. And when far-flung lands came calling, Annunziata answered.
Creative Loafing: You left Europe to accept a position on Cunard Cruise Line's World Cruise. How did you fare while navigating international culinary waters?
Working on the cruise ship was the best introduction to world cuisine a chef could ask for. I loved to watch the enjoyment on people's faces as they broke bread and enjoyed a good meal. It led to my very eclectic melding of flavors and a true appreciation for other cultural identities. My worldly experience has really served me well over the last 20 years.
Do you consider yourself to be a natural competitor?
Actually, competing to fillet fish on the cruise ship is one of my best memories. I was the fastest [not surprising — he comes from a long line of butchers], so it was something I took a tremendous amount of pride in. Showcasing what I do best, cooking with love, it's truly an honor.
How do you plan to incorporate the philosophy behind Passion8 into your performance at the competition?
I feel we have a responsibility to our guests to make innovative and creative fare that highlights what we are serving. We prepare a daily dinner menu with an emphasis on beautiful ingredients that are sourced locally, and we do it with no other equipment outside of eight burners and two ovens. That is what I will take to the competition: great food without modern conveniences most chefs take for granted.
Chef Nicolas Daniels of The Wooden Vine
The long list of our city's farm-to-fork locales makes it clear the movement has triumphed, with the concept of prioritizing personal relationships with local vendors to provide diners with fresh, local cuisine proving to be a win-win business model. Any movement would stagnate without its champions, and its devotees would be wise to tip their hats to Chef Nicolas Daniels. Coupling his fondness for locally sourced food with his keen knowledge of wine, his work at The Wooden Vine Wine Bar & Bistro has him serving up the stuff locavores dream of.
Creative Loafing: Your rather robust appreciation for wine wouldn't have anything to do with your South American roots, would it?
I was born in Chile and I moved around quite a bit, including Europe and the U.S. Chilean culture was a big part of what influenced my love for food. Outside of the U.S., all your food is coming from markets where you can get fresh-made bread and wine, from local farmers and butchers. You have wine with dinner, wine with lunch. Wine and food go hand in hand. I don't believe in good dinners without a good glass of wine. The last chef I worked for, the way he trained me was to develop the dish around the wine; that's what I do at The Wooden Vine. I unfortunately have the terrible task of having to try every single glass of wine.
Once upon a time, you cooked more with Bunsen burners than with stoves. Why'd you hang up the lab apron?
I went to college for biochemistry, but I worked in kitchens as a job. Once I started working at a pharmaceutical company, I realized how boring it was, so I moved to the beach (Viña del Mar, Chile) and I worked at a restaurant. I worked for a sous chef for three years and he taught me everything. The menu changed every day, and I got to be really involved with the process — I got to go to the docks where all the fishermen would drop off the fish, and it taught me what real food was about.
This isn't your first competition, but it's not something you've had much experience with. Would you say you're naturally competitive?
My favorite thing about cooking is the stress; if you can't handle the stress of a busy shift, you're never going to be a great chef. The ones that relish in it are going to be the ones that come out on top. Most chefs are adrenaline junkies, and one way or another we're going to do something that excites us. You add a time limit to that and I'm down.
Chef Troy Gagliardo of FOX Charlotte
True to typical Charlotte form, one of our most recognizable culinary personas is actually a transplant. Self-taught chef and media personality Troy Gagliardo moved down from Coloma, Mich., halfway through his eighth grade year. "I say I started the movement for folks to move into the area, because when I moved here, everyone was 'from here.' Now as you know, it's the complete opposite." Fast-forward 30 years and his cookbooks, line of spices, endorsements and live appearances have rendered Gagliardo's impact on our city's cuisine scene difficult to miss.
Creative Loafing: How did your love affair with all things culinary begin?
I was just born into food and cooking. I was very fortunate to have grown up with great cooks in my family. My father is second generation Chicago/Italian and my mom is a country girl from Arkansas. I watched my Italian grandmother (Dad's mom) make homemade pasta, bread and sauces. My Southern grandparents grew and canned all their vegetables. They have really influenced me. No matter what I create, I always wonder what my grandparents would think of it.
These days you may use your hands more for chopping and sautéing than for batting home runs, but baseball was your first love, right?
I was a baseball player and thought that was my career path, until I hurt my shoulder in college. I played a little semi-pro ball but retired at the ripe old age of 23. Culinary school was out of the question because none of them had baseball programs [laughs]. After baseball, I started focusing on cooking and started a food journal and taught myself how to cook through my family, books, lots of experimentation and TV greats like Justin Wilson and George Hirsch.
You've judged quite a few cooking competitions before. How does it feel to be getting ready to experience it from the other side?
Frankly, I am not sure that you can prepare for something like this competition. I am not in a commercial kitchen every day, like I used to be, to practice timing and to experiment with my sous chef like the rest of the competitors. However, writing/testing for my cooking show Tuesdays with Troy every week keeps me creative. In order to keep things fresh/exciting, I push myself more than I did when I ran my own kitchens. Hopefully, the two will balance things out.
Chef ZacK Gadberry of Vivace
If the consciousness of the average chef were dissected and mapped, there remains little doubt that we would find entire spaces of their minds devoted solely to the memory of Grandma's Kitchen. Grandma's Kitchen Effect — GKE for short — is a common thread in the lives of the gastronomically inclined, tying together the tastes and smells of childhood with an experience their grownup selves hunger to recreate. Zack Gadberry is the executive chef at the contemporary Italian trattoria, Vivace Charlotte, and is himself no stranger to the nostalgic effects that GKE produces.
Creative Loafing: Grandma Gadberry is the biggest influence in your culinary career. Is there a specific aspect of her cooking that impacted you?
Chef Gadberry: She was the matriarch of our family and her food was the glue that bound us together. Nothing can make a family of seven kids gather around a table faster than a big plate of her biscuits and gravy. She made the kind of food that filled both your belly and your soul and I try to honor her every day by putting love, passion, and time into my food. I actually came to Charlotte from Kentucky for culinary school as a second career. I have a background in psychology and criminal justice, but I had a passion for culinary arts, and made a bold decision to go after what made me most happy.
Your decision must have paid off when you found out you'd been selected by voters as one of the city's top chefs.
I was honored to be a part of the Iron Fork competition. There are some talented guys competing. Although it is flattering to be chosen, I always try to maintain a sense of humility so that I never stop learning.
You're a first-time competitor. Are you nervous?
I don't really get nervous about anything. I think all of the chefs in the competition have had weekends where they have been slammed and whether they sank or swam depended on their ability to improvise. I think that ability will make for an entertaining competition. I am looking forward to showing Charlotteans what kind of tricks our chefs have up their sleeves and, of course, being able to give back and share my talent for a good cause.