Chefs compete for top honor at Wilmington food fest

Click here to read article StarNews - Kellen Moore
Full stomachs and empty wineglasses were the standard at the second Taste of Wilmington Food & Wine Festival on Sunday evening.
The showcase of more than 30 local restaurants, wine shops and other businesses also was the site of a tough battle between three culinary experts for the title of Wilmington’s Top Chef. Matt Kahrs of Port City Chop House won the honor, but not before facing fierce competition from Wendell Francis of Wrightsville Grille and Nick Pittari of Nicola’s Italian Restaurant. “I’m on cloud nine,” Kahrs said after the cook-off. The event was sponsored by Wilmington Magazine and the StarNews, and the three finalists were chosen by more than 40,000 reader votes. The finalists worked tirelessly to prepare three dishes each while including, for extra points, the competition’s secret ingredient: Duplin Winery’s Muscadine wine. For Hampstead resident Lucy O’Brien, a regular at Nicola’s Italian Restaurant, a favorite wasn’t difficult to chose. “We came to see Nick and cheer him on,” O’Brien said. The chefs presented their creations to a lineup of four judges: StarNews Executive Editor Robyn Tomlin; author and columnist Celia Rivenbark; last year’s winner Marc Copenhaver, owner of Marc’s on Market; and Valerie Mason, lead instructor of culinary technology at Cape Fear Community College. Last year’s timed competition was still fresh in Copenhaver’s memory. He recalled feeling good with 45 minutes to go, while the final 20 passed “like a blink.” But the judges weren’t the only ones who delighted in fantastic flavors that filled the room at the Coastline Conference and Event Center. The more than 500 people who filtered through the event oohed and ahhed as they tasted samples of everything from miniature tarts to classic shrimp and grits. “That’s our best advertising,” said Kristen Beckmeyer, an owner of Coastal Cupcakes, which offered key lime, red velvet and chocolate cupcakes. “Once they try one, they’re hooked.” Several restaurant owners in attendance said they hoped the festival would allow them to be active in the community and get their names in guests’ minds. It seemed to work, as even longtime residents took note of restaurants and wine shops they hadn’t tried before. Faye Mack and her sister Gale mixed their old favorites with new tastes as they enjoyed raspberry wheat beer and crab soup. “We’re being tourists in our hometown,” Mack said. Kellen Moore: 343-2061