Chainey Kuykendall lightly refers to herself as an introvert with a selectively outgoing personality. Understandably, that friendly bias didn’t extend to an auditorium crowded with spectators, acclaimed judges, and some of the top chefs in the Charlotte, North Carolina, dining scene.
“That was terrifying,” Kuykendall says, laughing.
But as it would play out, the formal presentation portion of the S&D Coffee & Tea Culinary Challenge at Johnson & Wales University, turned out to be a mere victory speech for the junior from Mount Airy. She just didn’t realize it at the time. In fact, when the winners were announced during the March 15 finale, she expressed another personal trait that elicited a quick rebuttal from her mentor.
“Oh yeah,” she humbly says. “I was really surprised [I won],”
“I wasn’t,” chimes in Cody Suddreth, the executive chef at The King’s Kitchen who worked with Kuykendall during the challenge.
Kuykendall’s dish, The Cheerful Blend of Carolina, topped a final pool of 10 students competing for the $5,000 prize, a process that began when students were asked to submit recipes using coffee and tea extracts from S&D, a Concord, North Carolina-based custom coffee roaster and supplier of iced tea to the foodservice industry that also produces liquid extracts. In the sixth edition of the event, students were asked to pay homage to Carolina-inspired cuisine. Twenty submissions made it through the first round of judging, and then a local panel whittled the list down to 10.
The remaining contestants were paired with celebrated Charlotte chefs before presenting their dishes at the live event.
For Kuykendall, the experience had a certain déjà vu quality, although she was hoping for a slightly different result. Last year, Kuykendall fell in the semifinals showcasing a sweet dish involving sticky buns. This time around, she figured she might as well go big. Or at least go weird.
“At first this idea was a joke,” she says. “I was like, ‘I should just choose the weirdest thing to put into a recipe’ and see how it turns out.”
With a Southern and Filipino background (her mother is Filipino and her father is from the Tar Heel state’s capital city Raleigh), she invented a coffee-marinated beef rib dish with sweet potato and congee mixture. Cheerwine, a cherry-flavored soft drink and Carolina staple, was also used in the braising process.
In addition, Kuykendall, who says she can see herself in a test kitchen some day, pushed the limits by bringing coffee into multiple preparations.
“I steeped coffee grounds in the stock that I later strained,” Kuykendall explains. “And then I also finished it with coffee grounds in the congee. There’s also a coffee-steeped butter that I used in the breadcrumbs that top the short rib, and the short ribs are also braised in coffee.”
As she began tasting the dish, Kuykendall was pleasantly surprised. However, the consistency and depths of flavor needed work. That’s where Suddreth, who has been cooking for 12 years and has helmed the post at King’s Kitchen for the past seven months, stepped in.
“Her dish was pretty set up. It was pretty balanced for the most part,” he says. “There were only a few things that we tweaked. I think one of them was having a dark stock in the coffee. I think she was using beef or a stronger stock, and we took that and made it mellow so her dish could balance out even more. So we did a vegetable stock with the coffee. This way she could get even more balance in her dish and her coffee could shine through.”
The plate was also topped with sweet potato chips that Suddreth helped Kuykendall refine by frying the product at a lower temperature and letting the chips dry out.
They added some herbs and acidity as well, and Suddreth suggested Carolina Gold Rice for the congee, which is a type of rice porridge dish popular in Asian cooking.
The mentorship was a first for both parties. Suddreth says he’s never taken a young cook under his wing in a competition setting. “From the beginning, it was really fun watching her progress the dish and eat the dish. Me, myself, I couldn’t stop eating the dish. So I knew it was going to be good.”
When it was over, he says there wasn’t much room for bragging rights, even in a mentor field that included Heirloom owner Clark Barlowe; Jon Fortes, owner of Flipside Café; Luca Annunziata, owner of Passion8; and Blair Cannon, sous chef at Charlotte Country Club and winner of the competition in 2012.
“It was more about her really,” Suddreth says. “To me, when she won, I almost felt like it was my kid. It was kind of weird.”
“It was really helpful,” Kuykendall adds. “It was the first time that I’ve ever had that kind of focus just on me. Because in Johnson & Wales you’re in a classroom setting, so you have a chef going around. But Cody was there just for me … and I think it really helped make him more approachable and let me ask him questions about my dish.”
The judging panel was comprised of Chris Aquilino, corporate executive chef for Compass Group North Carolina; Heidi Billotto, food expert and restaurant critic; Jenny Brulé, NBC Charlotte chef and cookbook author; Brian Foye, president of Seasons 52; and Eric Nakata, vice president of culinary innovation at S&D Coffee and Tea.
Kuykendall gave the prize money to her mother. Suddreth was also presented with a $5,000 check, which he accepted for his restaurant, a non-profit that serves southern-inspired cuisine with proceeds feeding the poor.