Moments after grabbing a couple handfuls of mushrooms, while the Top Gun anthem “Danger Zone” kept time, Travis Myers and Roland Trask disappeared into the back of the kitchen. Their host had already started the clock, and a cheering throng of onlookers standing on their toes and craning their necks as they applauded only added to the intensity.
Myers and Trask — two friends and professional chefs — could feel the pressure. Myers later admitted that he’d been “a nervous wreck” in his car earlier on the way to the showdown, and when he returned to the front visible kitchen area he set to work at a breakneck, almost frantic pace.
But while the “Knife Fight” on Monday night — the second such battle at Mission Pizza Napoletana in downtown Winston-Salem — gave Willow’s Bistro chef Myers a chance to compete for the adoration of dozens present and a modest prize, Roland Trask may have had more to prove. As the executive chef for Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center, Trask toils in relative obscurity compared to Myers, a well known Winston-Salem chef with a respectable cadre of Instagram followers.
Mission Pizza owner Peyton Smith, the broad-shouldered idea man and maestro behind the evening, spelled it out in his opening remarks. Before explaining that both chefs would be given an hour to plate three courses, each using a surprise ingredient, Smith introduced the men beside him.
“Believe it or not, [Trask] is an executive chef… but he can actually cook,” Smith quipped. “We’re not going to pick on him for being a corporate punk.”
Calling for “a rowdy, fun time,” Smith continued with his tone as he encouraged people to offer verbal support, criticism or even to throw rotten tomatoes as the chefs competed in the open, visible kitchen that takes up about a third of Mission Pizza’s central room.
A vinyl-spinning DJ cued up “Danger Zone” over by the bar around the time Smith revealed the secret ingredient — mushrooms, ranging from rich to mild and covering five varieties including crimini, shiitake, maitake, oyster and portabella. Meanwhile, two judges — myself and Eric Swaim of Hoots brewery, which provided the beer for the evening — and three guest judges selected at random took up residence at the long bar directly in front of the open kitchen.
The hour moved quickly on our side of the counter, as friends and strangers leaned on our backs, gawking as Myers steeped shiitakes in Hoots’ mild beer and as Trask chanced the high heat of Smith’s signature wood-fired oven for a flatbread. Friends finagled bites from judges — they’d been served some delicious meatballs and pasta, but Trask and Myers couldn’t be expected to plate for more than the five judges — and leaned over shoulders to snap photos, regularly calling out questions such as, “Is that polenta?” and “What are you doing to those mushrooms?”
Myers stacked a whole garden full of vegetables in front of him before taking over most of the stovetop space with risotto and polenta. Trask moved more slowly, and from the judge’s vantage point down the bar, we occasionally stood to better observe him at work. Despite Myers’ more rapid movements, Trask plated and served a dish first, and arguably the best of the evening.
Trask took a major risk in deciding to use the pizzeria’s oven, but it paid off magnificently, aided by a knockout goat cheese spread with garlic, shallots, capers and a white wine reduction acting as a pillow for chewy, roasted oyster mushrooms and a sprig of asparagus down the center. Myers’ first dish — a colorful crudité of shaved carrots, asparagus, broccolini buds, pickled red onion, whole-grain mustard and extra virgin olive oil/balsamic — may have been more visually compelling, but it minimized the presence of the shiitake mushroom. It excelled instead with its pairing with the shiitake-steeped beer Myers paired it with. Swaim and another guest judge — a server at Spring House — could tell the difference in the beer, particularly because someone brought them a taste of the unmodified mild beer, but without the comparison it proved somewhat difficult to tell.
It didn’t matter much, though; we’d seen Myers tossing it all into a French press a foot away from us, and the experience of seeing it — and all the other components to each dish — come together made up half the fun of it.
Still, the judges concurred later that Trask held the upper hand after the first round.
As we finished Myers’ appetizer, he pulled together his second course, a savory risotto with oyster mushroom, asparagus, olive oil and cracked pepper. An instant crowd pleaser, the risotto nestled into our hearts and delighted our senses. Myers had thrown down the gauntlet, and as we polished off the dish, Smith announced that a mere 13 minutes remained.
Trask pushed out his next two in succession, a cous cous with a spicy shrimp broth reduction, sautéed shrimp, an IPA jus, crispy shiitake with rainbow Swiss chard, a sprinkling of cilantro chiffonade and lime zest followed by coconut porter soaked lady fingers topped with marscarpone, balsamic and olive oil, wood roasted strawberries and mint.
Myers sidestepped dessert, offering us a goat cheese polenta, sautéed crimini mushroom, Swiss chard and fennel fronds and a spicy chorizo cream, though he routed Trask in the second round despite the crispy shiitake being the best tasting mushroom of the night.
In the din and excitement of the final moments of the Knife Fight, I felt ready to give the title to Trask. I admit to pulling for him, to an extent, considering him the underdog, and his first course reinforced my inclination. I gave him high marks for using the wood-fired oven, for the execution of the goat cheese and its complementing ingredients and for his ability to pull off the dessert.
But in the heat and noise of the moment, I didn’t realize that Trask had failed to work mushrooms into his final course, mistakenly thinking that the soaked lady fingers at the bottom of the bowl somehow utilized the surprise ingredient. You could chalk it up to the time crunch, but Myers is the one who stretched the time limit. I didn’t realize until the evening ended what had occurred, but it ended up not changing the outcome; the judges, whose ranks also included a nurse and part-time caterer from Boston and one of Trask’s colleagues, favored Myers.
Myers deserves the prize, but both deserve accolades for their creativity, quick-wittedness and satisfying output. And just as much — if not more — of the credit belongs to Smith, who created an environment that Myers referred to as more fun and competitive than larger scale competitions he’s joined. The Knife Fights are the ground floor of the city’s culinary rebirth, and Myers said it best when he added tiredly after being declared the victor: “Peyton [Smith]’s killing it with this idea right here.”