Q.C. foodies know that our city’s chefs are among the crème de la crème, and the American Culinary Federation is all set to prove them right. On Monday, Feb. 20, two area chefs — Travis Dale, executive chef at The Point Lake and Golf Club in Mooresville, and Jean-Pierre Marechal, executive chef of the Charlotte Marriott City Center — will face each other, and a competitor from Virginia, in an Iron Chef style cook-off, vying for the title of American Culinary Federation’s 2012 Southeast Regional Chef of the Year. Unacquainted with our ambassador tastemakers? CL gives you the inside scoop.
Creative Loafing: Chefs can always pinpoint when they caught the cooking bug. What was that moment for you?
Chef Dale: When I was 10, my mother was in culinary school and she didn’t have a babysitter one night, so she took me and my brother to her class, where they were working on a banquet. One of the instructors asked us if we wanted to help. I started buttering herb toast, wearing the chef’s hat and apron, and I just knew.
Chef Marechal: At 6 years old I was already watching cooking shows. At 9, I taught my babysitter how to do a béchamel sauce, which I guess is very unusual. I was born to do this; I don’t know if I would be able to do anything else. I am very fortunate, not a lot of people love what they do.
How did you start paying your culinary dues?
Chef Dale: All through middle and high school, my mom did a lot of catering, and I would help her. When I was old enough to legally get a job, I worked the counter for her in a bakery.
Chef Marechal: I was 13 when I did my first catering banquet for 150 people in my mom’s kitchen. I needed to cook like 100 chickens and my mom’s oven only held six chickens, so I would cook them six at a time. I was so proud, it was magical.
This competition requires you to work arctic char (a cold-water fish) into all your dishes. If it were up to you, what cuisine would you choose to let your skills shine?
Chef Dale: Regional American cuisine, with a heavy emphasis on classic technique. We change our menu about four times a year, this time of year a lot of steaks, grilled fish, those types of things, lighter and healthier, not a lot of heavy classical sauces, fruit or vegetable purees and marinades.
Chef Marechal: I touch every kind of food. Fast paced, fine dining, banquet. Years before the local foods trend started, I was working with farmers at a co-op to make sure we understood what we needed from each other. My menus reflect what I have available from local farmers. It’s back to basics, elegant food. For the competition I’ll feature regional specialties like kudzu butter jelly, and purple rice that Hmong immigrant communities grow in the mountains.
Do you consider yourself a naturally competitive person? How are you feeling going into it?
Chef Dale: In high school I wrestled and I was in track, I did a few competitions and really got the bug for it. A competition helps you focus on skill sets; you’ve got your guard up against the clock and people critiquing your food. I like the thrill, the rush of competing. I’m confident that I know I’ll do well.
Chef Marechal: Competitive? Not at all. This will be my first competition. Of course I want to win; I will be ready for it, that’s for sure.