2019 NCRLA Chef Showdown

Time for the fourth annual NCRLA Chef Showdown. Call your food-centric friends, mark your calendars and save the date. 

Stay tuned for updates as the regional rounds in Raleigh and Charlotte NC take place. I invite you to subscribe to HeidiBillottoFood.com by typing in your email where prompted on my home page. That way, you won’t miss a single delicious bite of the competition.

This year’s culmination to months of competition among North Carolina chefs will take place in Durham, NC on Sept 30, 2019.

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Overhead shot of the 2018 NCRLA Chef Showdown crowds having a ball as they eat and drink local in Charlotte at Aria in Founders Hall. Photo thanks my friends at A Beautiful Mess Photography

In a state that loves to celebrate all that is local, this is a remarkable culinary event, featuring chefs from across North Carolina. It’s a celebration of North Carolina grown, raised, caught and made proteins, produce and product crafted by 20 chefs into 15 savory dishes and 5 sweet ones.

In addition, six NC mixologists will be shakin’ and stirring things up with craft cocktails featuring six local NC distilleries. And there will be NC beer and wine. You won’t want to miss a single bite or sip of the action!

So, looks like to me, it’s time to start planning your September road trip to Durham, NC, now! Here’s why…

When North Carolina chefs gather, deliciously local things begin to happen.

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Yours Truly, Heidi Billotto, front and center with all of the chefs who competed in the 2018 NCRLA Chef Showdown. Photo thanks to my friends at A Beautiful Mess Photography

The mission of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, NCRLA Chef Showdown is to celebrate and recognize the talent of chefs and mixologists from across the state. It’s a competition that features all that is local as the North Carolina Department of Agriculture is the event’s presenting sponsor. With that “eat and drink local” mantra in mind, chefs and mixologists are given a mission. To conceptualize their sweet or savory dish or cocktail, so that it incorporates all the GotToBeNC local product they can get on the plate and in the glass. 

From the Mountains to the Coast

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As the host and co-organizer of this annual event, it is a pleasure to work with CEO Lynn Minges, and Director of Marketing and Business Development, Mindy Wharton and the incredible team at the NCRLA. We’ve seen the bar raised each year, and have been excited to see the level of culinary talent from across the state that came in with the call to apply early this year in January.

Since then, nearly 50 participating chefs have cooked their way through 5 different preliminary rounds starting at the coast in Morehead City. The competition then took us to Asheville, Charlotte, Greensboro and Chapel Hill.

A second post coming soon will tell you more about each of these wonderful North Carolina destinations. I’ve got all the where to stay, what to do and I’ll also share more about each of our host venues. But for now, I’d like to shine the spotlight on the chefs who make this competition all it is.

Here is how it works…

On the savory side, the three highest scoring chefs in each preliminary round will now move on to the regionals. Likewise, the top five highest scoring pastry chefs will move on to the regional rounds of competition. All twenty of these talented chefs will also take part in the Sept 30 NCRLA Chef Showdown in Durham. Chefs are vying for the title of 2019 NCRLA Chef of the Year and 2019 NCRLA Pastry Chef of the Year, the cash prizes and all the bragging rites that come with the titles.

Cheers and congratulations to this talented group of chefs as they move into the regional rounds. Next step for these 20, is to work on developing winning dishes that will help them grasp the gold ring and the NCRLA Chef Showdown top honors.

Just take a look at the photos with each section below. These are just a few of the top scoring dishes from the preliminary rounds of competition. Delighted to say, there is more of this to come.

Competing from Eastern North Carolina:

Amanda Ezzell, chef and owner of Ezzell’s Catering in Warsaw

Brandon Sheppard, chef and owner of Urban Street Eats in Swannsboro

Chef Jake Vollmar of The Village at River Landing in Wallace

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Thanks to our panel of judges at the coast. Chef Dean Neff from Love, Lydia Bakery and Cafe in Wilmington; Chef Mara Norris of Salud Cooking School at Whole Foods in Charlotte. Also from Charlotte, our 2018 NCRLA Chef of the Year, Matthew Krenz.

Competing from the Carolina Mountains:

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Pastry Chef Ryan Stipp from the Grove Park Inn in Asheville

Chef Richard Gras from the Grove Park Inn in Asheville

Chef Steven Goff from AUX Bar In Asheville

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Thanks to our panel of judges for this Asheville preliminary round. The trio of judges is shown here flanked by NC Department of Agriculture marketing specialists, Chad Blackwelder, far left; and Tim Parrish, far right. Pastry Chef Miranda Brown, of The Asbury and our 2018 NCRLA Pastry Chef of the Year. Chef John Bobby of the soon-to-open Bobby’s BakeShop in Winston-Salem; and Pastry Chef Lucia Bobby of Bobby’s BakeShop as well.

Competing from in and around Charlotte:

Paul Verica, chef and owner of The Stanley in Charlotte

Chef Cory Haigler, Executive Sous Chef, Westin Hotel in Charlotte

Pastry Chef Jamie Turner of Earl’s Grocery and Soul Food Sessions in Charlotte

Adam Reed, chef and owner of Sante of Matthews

Chef Matthew Shepard of The McNinch House

Pastry Chef Mary Jane Wilson of Amelie’s French Bakery

Pastry Chef Gerald Hawkins of Gaston Country Club

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On the judging panel for the Charlotte Preliminary round, thanks go out to Chef Teddy Diggs of the soon-to-open Coronato Pizza in Carrboro, NC; Chef Mark Allison of the Cabarrus County Health Department; and Chef Andrew Wright, Chef du Cuisine of The Inn at Little Washington, in Washington, Virginia.

Competing from the Triad:

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Chef Nicholas Chavez of Sedgefield Country Club In Greensboro

Matthew Hannon, Chef du Cuisine of Ashten’s in Southern Pines

Chef Richard Miller of Butcher and Bull in Winston-Salem

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Thanks to these judges at the Greensboro preliminary round. Chef Matthew Krenz, 2017 NCRLA Chef of the Year; Pastry Chef Miranda Brown, 2018 NCRLA Pastry Chef of the Year; and chef Cary Snow, chef instructor for the culinary program at North Carolina Central University in Durham, NC.

Competing from Raleigh/ Durham:

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Thomas Card, Executive Chef of Counting House at the 21c Hotel in Durham

Chef Thomas Cuomo of Papa Shogun in Raleigh

Chef Kyle Teears of Whiskey Kitchen in Raleigh

Pastry Chef Tie Whitaker of Buttermilk Boutique in Clayton, NC and Plates Kitchen in Raleigh

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With thanks to our judges for the Triangle Preliminary round: Chef Richard Kugelmann of CPCC in Charlotte; Chef Bud Taylor from Topsail Island; and Pastry Chef Lucia Bobby of the soon-to-open, Bobby’s BakeShop in Winston-Salem.

What these chefs will bring to the Chef Showdown table?

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Pastry Chef Anika Rutker, 2018 NCRLA Chef Showdown People’s Choice for bites on the sweeter side of things
Photo thanks to my friends at A Beautiful Mess Photography

In years past, Chef Showdown competitors presented finished plates to panel of five judges and served the excited crowd of 300-400 showdown enthusiasts all at the annual festivities.

This year, the Sept 30 Chef Showdown soiree will be a tasting gala at which guests may chat with the chefs as they sample and cast their votes for People’s Choice faves. Chefs will have already presented their dishes (recreated in sample sized portions for Sept 30) to a panel of judges at one of two regional rounds of competition. The regional rounds will take place as private events on Aug 12 in Raleigh and then on Aug 19 in Charlotte. The same four judges will judge each regional round.

NC Chefs Cook to Win at one of two regional rounds

The 2018 Winning Dish. Cheers to the 2018 NCRLA Chef of the Year, Chef Travis Myers of Willows Bistro in Winston-Salem, NC.
Photo by my friends at A Beautiful Mess Photography

The chefs will prepare the same dishes at the September event that they make for the judges in August. Scoring is based on several elements.

Presentation, technique, use of North Carolina ingredients and of course taste, all factor in to the equation. The 2019 titles of NCRLA Chef of the Year and NCRLA Pastry Chef of the Year will be determined by regional round scores; but, because we know you love the anticipation, the results won’t be announced until the Sept. 30 Chef Showdown festivities.

Winners to represent the NC Department of Agriculture

Recognizing the valuable impact chefs throughout the state can have, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture Markets Division has created a Culinary Ambassador Team.  This team of talented culinarians will serve to support the department’s efforts to advocate and promote North Carolina food and beverage. Only six North Carolina chefs will be honored with the distinction of being awarded a spot on the team each year.

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2018 NCRLA Chef of the Year, Travis Myers, left, and 2018 NCRLA People’s Choice for Savory, Chef Thomas Card of the Counting House at 21c in Durham, rocking their GotToBeNC Chef Ambassador jackets at the 2019 ProStart event in Charlotte.

The 2019 North Carolina Culinary Ambassador team

As a part of the NCRLA Chef Showdown prize package, both the winner and the runner-up for the title of NCRLA Chef of the Year, and the winner and runner-up for the title of NCRLA Pastry Chef of the Year, will become members of the 2019 North Carolina Culinary Ambassador team. At the Sept 30 Chef Showdown, they will be awarded the honor of wearing the coveted chef coat with the distinctive NC Culinary Ambassador logo.

In addition, People’s Choice winners will also be awarded positions on the Culinary Ambassadors team. Team members serve a one-year term from September to August.

This elite team of chefs will be the culinary voice of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. Their job: to advocate on behalf of North Carolina food and beverage products in restaurants throughout the state. Look for these award winning chefs at cooking demonstrations and educational discussions on healthy eating. Follow them for seasonal recipe development and more on the general promotion of North Carolina’s food and agricultural industries.

Don’t forget the Drinks….

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From behind Fainting Goat Spirits bar, at the 2018 NCRLA Chef Showdown. where Joe Nicol, the 2018 NCRLA Mixologist of the Year and his team were stirring it up for the win Photo from my friends at A Beautiful Mess Photography

Really, what would a showdown be without a little cocktail competition in the mix? To that end, six North Carolina Mixologists have paired with six North Carolina distilleries to shake up a little competitive spirit all their own.

Photo courtesy of Joe Nicol, 2018 NCRLA Mixologist of the Year

The 2019 mixology competition will take place on Sept. 30 at the NCRLA Chef Showdown event in Durham. A panel of three judges will belly up to the bar to judge mixology competitors on technique, taste, creativity and the number of local ingredients in the glass.

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Photo courtesy of Joe Nicol, 2018 NCRLA Mixologist of the Year

Each mixologist/distillery team will also be serving sample sized cocktails to the crowd and going for the all important People’s Choice accolades.

Raise Your Glass and Say Cheers!

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see the cocktails these six mixologists and distilleries will be crafting for the Sept 30 event. Cheers to them all!

Nichole Gubitosi from Revival 1869 in Clayton, NC will be representing Lassiter Distilling located in Knightdale.

Shannon Healy is regularly at Alley Twenty-Six in Durham. He is pairing up with Durham Distillery to make it a hometown team behind the bar!

Jimmy Huynh aka Jimmy the Bartender , owner of Shoto Japanese Steakhouse and Seafood in Lexington NC will be representing Copper Barrel Distilling in North Wilkesboro.

Jonny Burritt from The Antidote in Asheville NC will be competing on behalf of The Chemist Distillery in Asheville.

Amanda Phillips at Sovereign Remedies in Asheville, will be representing TOPO Distillery from Chapel Hill.

Hannah Forde-Smith from the Chef and the Farmer restaurant will be representing Mother Earth Spirits both from Kinston.  

Read more…

The NCRLA Chef Showdown is presented each year by the North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association. The NCRLA is the driving force behind North Carolina’s $23.5 billion restaurant, foodservice and lodging industries.

It is my pleasure to work with this talented team to produce this event each year, because its all about chefs and restaurants and you know I love the local side of things.  For more information on the 2019 NCRLA Chef Showdown, visit the website . Then, follow all the social media feeds on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, too.

Read more about the history of the NCRLA Chef Showdown; and meet the past winners in a blog post I wrote this time last year.

Then, you can check out this article I wrote for Charlotte Living magazine. Its a recap on the 2018 NCRLA Chef Showdown, which took place last year in Charlotte.

Tell Them Heidi Sent You

Tickets are $125 per person. With admission comes all the local food and drink. Plus, you’ll enjoy the opportunity to cast your vote for several People’s Choice awards. Make your plans now; and stay tuned as I’ll be back with updates about where to stay and what else to do while you are in Durham for the Showdown. I can absolutely guarantee a fabulous fun-filled food-centric evening; where eating and drinking local will be the name of the game!


  1. Thank you so much for this article. My favorite is Nicholas Chavez, as he is my baby boy! ❤️

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