Competition isn’t always what you might expect; it rarely is. While the primary goal for most is to win, I decided to take a different approach to competition. I competed in Nashville for the Club + Resort Chef of the Year a few years ago. I didn’t win first the title, but I did gain something incredibly valuable—lifelong relationships with fellow competitors and teammates. These are the brothers and sisters cut from the same cloth. Though geographically distant, we share the same passion.
In truth, the last time I won anything was in the 8th grade when I secured 1st place in my county for a science fair project my teacher entered from my school. Today, I often find myself winning in the realm of relationships. This led me to compete in the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodge Association Chef Showdown. A select few, including four Club Chefs and former Club Chefs, received competition invitations.
The rules allowed me to pick a sous chef, so I chose the only person I knew would complement, critique, and collaborate effectively with me. I contacted Will Bystrzycki from Wildcat Cliffs Country Club, who lives 90 minutes away. To say the least, we had some unfinished business to address. I first met Chef Will in New Orleans at a conference, and we’ve been inseparable ever since.
Out of the 87 Chefs from North Carolina, we were the only club chefs to make it to the semifinals. As Anthony Capua, Executive Chef of Brentwood Country Club, once reminded: “Steel sharpens steel.” Here, Will and I joked about club chefs doing more than just preparing chicken (turkey) salad and cobb salads; we could create perfect poached salmon and so much more.
Chef Will and I collaborated primarily via text and Facebook Messenger for 95 percent of this process. The dish I entered for the semifinals had to feature ingredients from growers, farmers, and producers in North Carolina. Another challenge in the semifinals was that, if we advanced, we would have to reproduce this dish in a tapas version for 400-500 people. Game on. We quickly settled on a dish representing North Carolina culture, cooking techniques, and flavors from our past and present. Here goes nothing…
We put up a Sweet Potato-Guava Glazed Pork Belly with Oyster Mushroom Tamale, Mole Encacahuatado, Carolina Gold Crackling, Macha emulsion, and Chorizo oil.
We decided to pay homage to the diverse culture that keeps North Carolina running, not only in hospitality but also in our infrastructure, from picking crops to building the roads we travel daily.
As we traveled to Charlotte, N.C., to present our dish to four judges who had previously won this competition, we cooked and executed it with skill, precision, love, and finesse. It was now time to stand before the judges and receive their feedback. To my surprise, there was no critique, only a few comments about our dish being the best in the Charlotte semifinals. We left Charlotte on cloud nine, ready to compete in the final round held at The Angus Barn in Raleigh. Remember that both Chef Will and I were in peak season at our clubs in Western North Carolina and were still juggling our family lives (both of us have children aged 7 and under) and professional responsibilities simultaneously. Thank goodness our Member-Guest Golf tournaments were at least behind us.
Fast forward a month, we purchased to-go plates and hand-hammered rose gold forks to match our dish, vision, and table setup. As we traveled across North Carolina in a GMC Envoy packed to the roof, I couldn’t help but think about how I’m the guy who travels to a three-day conference with two large suitcases. This competition was no different. I’ve rubbed off on Will because we had to rearrange everything to fit it. We left at 4:30 a.m., and the competition required us to be set up by 3:00 p.m. Adrenaline and passion were at the wheel, and we were prepared to represent clubs, as most competitors were from independent restaurants across the state.
Upon arrival at The Angus Barn, we unloaded and set up our table with 7-foot live edge slabs from Sycamore that had fallen at Hendersonville CC a few years back. Within an hour, our presentation table was ready. To our surprise, no other competitor had a tablescape or even brought their serving ware, as they used the “Bamboo Plates” and sporks supplied by one of the sponsors. The doors opened, and people started flocking to our table. We had already pre-plated a few dishes to gauge how smoothly it would flow, given that our dish had nine components. With a playlist and a portable JBL speaker playing A Tribe Called Quest in the background, the atmosphere came alive. The music aspect was another element we wanted to add to our guests’ experience.
We kept up and executed as planned. At one point, I saw Adam Deviney, Executive Chef of The Country Club of North Carolina, at our table. We had met in Miami at the 2023 Chef to Chef Conference and had dinner together. It was another relationship fostered by attending the Chef to Chef Conference.
The room had so much energy; the endorphins and serotonin flowed as freely as the wine from North Carolina wineries. We presented nonstop for 2.5 hours and were near the end when awards for Best Pastry Chef and Chef of the Year were about to be announced. Surprisingly, we didn’t hear our names called for Chef of the Year or runner-up. This was devastating to both of us because, for the first time in our careers, we stood behind this dish 110% and wouldn’t have changed a thing.
This is where it got interesting. Emotions ran high, and the following day, we discussed how to answer the specific question that our members, GMs, colleagues, friends, and families would undoubtedly ask. How do we handle this with grace and professionalism?
Some of us have been in this situation, but it becomes a different story when you’re on stage. We decided to release this dish into the world, the one we wholeheartedly believed in. Once that happened, it was out of our control. Many variables come into play in this situation, such as market conditions, alignment of stars, agendas, and more. Sometimes the outcome is positive, sometimes negative. Initially, we thought it was a negative outcome, but after a few days of reflection and the dust had settled, I realized the full circle of all the positive relationships I had cultivated over the years as a club chef.
This experience was a pivotal point in my career and reinforced the importance of the professionalism and the sense of family I’ve encountered in club culinary. It may not be as pronounced in the independent sector—but my professional life is embedded in clubs and the culture that comes with it.