The NCRLA Chef Showdown isn’t just a competition—it’s a platform.
Like a simplified local version of Top Chef, the NCRLA Chef Showdown is a big deal. The annual competition—now in its seventh season—pits chefs, pastry chefs, mixologists and distilleries from across the state against each other to battle it out for the crown of NCRLA Chef of the Year, Pastry Chef of the Year, Bartender of the Year and Distillery of the Year.
But let it be known that these aren’t your Ashley Christensen, Vivian Howard or Scott Crawford gourmands. Instead, the Showdown provides a platform for industry peeps on the comeup to stand out, get noticed and make a name
Take rising star chef Saif Rahman, NCRLA Chef of the Year in 2021 who returned in 2022 to judge the competition—and hopes to return to judge this year as well. “You get a lot of local media attention,” he says. “[Winning] gives you a platform—but it also helps the chefs to represent North Carolina in a different way versus just in their own restaurants.”
Rahman says winning provided him a career boost, local recognition—and bragging rights, natch. And he’s just one of many local names the comp has bolstered—see also: Asheville’s Steven Goff, 2019 NCRLA Chef of the Year and now the owner and executive chef of Tastee Diner; 2022 NCRLA Chef of the Year Oscar Johnson, co-owner of Jimmy Pearls in Charlotte; and 2022 NCRLA Pastry Chef of the Year Lydia Greene of Machete in Greensboro.
“The Chef Showdown has become the place to showcase the incredible talent of the North Carolina hospitality industry,” says NCRLA President and CEO Lynn Minges. And this year’s competition promises to be fierce—and perhaps the most competitive and star-studded yet—with an elite cast of 62 chefs, 14 pastry chefs, and 18 teams of bartenders and distillers in the mix (the most in any year to date) making their way through the rounds from May to August.
And Raleigh came not just to play—but to win (!)—repping in both strength and numbers in this year’s lineup—from culinary contenders Longleaf Swine BBQ’s chef Marc Russell and Cheeni Indian Food Emporium’s Preeti Waas (hey, 2023 James Beard Award semifinalist!) to mixology contenders Wye Hill’s Zac Rogerson and The Willard’s Jessica Rossabi (also the 2022 Bartender of the Year first runner-up. (See the full list of competitors at raleighmag.com.)
Each preliminary round takes place at community colleges across the state, with Raleigh’s own Wake Tech Community College School of Baking and Pastry Arts hosting July 12. A partner of the Chef Showdown for several years now, the college offers ample room and great equipment for the competitors—NTM “the culinary students are so interested in helping where they can,” says Heidi Billotto, a Charlotte-based restaurant, food and travel writer who conceptualized the Chef Showdown in 2016 and continues to contract with the NCRLA to organize the event.
Only 15 chefs and five pastry chefs will move on to compete in the regional rounds and grand finale—with the final elite six of the highest scoring mixology teams set to shake and stir things up for the public at the grand finale. “I’m proud to say this is our biggest year ever—and it’s going to be spectacular,” adds Billotto. Clearly, this year’s NCRLA Chef Showdown will be one for the books. Grande Finale, open to the public, Aug. 14, The Pavilion at Angus Barn, ncrla.org
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