Asheville — A local chef who’s trained many a student to compete on national stages found himself center-ring in an international battle of the culinary arts.
Chris Bugher, a certified executive chef instructor at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, has trained many students to career success and teams to award-winning victory as a coach for the institution’s culinary arts program.
In March, the latest student team won at the American Culinary Federation’s national qualifying competition, representing the Southeast Region. And in July, the rising chefs will compete in the national finals in New Orleans.
In May, Bugher, who was selected by the ACF, led by example as a solo competitor and represented the U.S. in the Worldchefs Global Chefs Challenge Regional Semi-Final in Santiago, Chile, in South America.
The regionals included chefs from North America and South America.
Bugher won the gold medal and trophy and earned the title of Global Vegan Chef of the Americas.
He will advance to represent North and South America in the Global Chefs Challenge Finals, to be hosted at the Worldchefs Congress and Expo in Singapore in October 2024. The biennial conference connects industry leaders and culinary innovators around the world.
“I definitely have my work cut out for me. It’s the North and South (America) and we’re kind of the underdogs,” Bugher said. “The European countries are really what they’re looking at and Nordic countries. They’re really good, but I’ve got a year to train and hopefully represent really well.”
Flexing vegan chops
Worldchefs Global Chefs’ vegan challenge was the first for the competition series, which includes global, pastry, and young chefs' challenges.
The vegan criteria are that the dishes “must exclude animal proteins, while also creatively and tastily combining key vegan ingredients.”
Bugher, who is not a practicing vegan, was tasked with making a high-quality plant-based meal exempt from cheese, meat, and meat substitutes.
“If you’re in a restaurant and someone wants something vegan, a lot of times you’re taking shortcuts or making something that will pass,” Bugher said. “But for a competition like this, it has to be amazing and not just ‘OK, that’s vegan.’ It has to be delicious for anybody.”
Bugher’s winning spread featured three courses.
The appetizer was a quinoa and avocado cake wrapped with a corn mousse.
“I made this mousse in a corn mold, froze it, then wrapped it around so it looked like a corn on a cob, basically, with avocado and The corn silk was stripped and fried and used to create a “nest” on top.
“Full utilization of the product, especially in the vegan category, it’s all about sustainability,” he said.
The entrée was based on Southern Appalachian cuisine ― a rice cake with a sweet potato remoulade and a collard green hushpuppy served with a Fresno Hearts of Palm sauce.
The chef competitors were required to incorporate mango, tea, and chocolate in the dessert.
Bugher toasted coconut and made a chocolate shell formed to look like a halved coconut. He filled it with a green tea coconut cream sauce with lime-mango curd on top.
Vegan cooking tips
Bugher’s shared tips for those venturing into vegan cooking.
Latin food, like tacos and pupusas, is easy to create as it allows for the use of mushrooms, beans, which are rich in proteins, and other plant-based ingredients, he said.
“I didn’t miss the meat at all in that,” Bugher said. “There’s so many toppings and fun things and flavors, the meat is not even necessary. I won’t do any faux meats or anything for that. And hot sauces are great.”
He also likes to make Italian food, like cacciatore, with onions and peppers. Instead of sausage, Bugher grinds up fennel to give it a “meaty, sausagey” flavor and adds red pepper flakes.
“If you didn’t know, you’d be like, ‘Oh, this tastes really meaty.’ But it’s not,” he said.
Pizza may be prepared the same way, he said.
One technique he recommends is ideal for the summer barbecue season.
“Smoking foods really helps," he said. "A popular one right now is the buffalo cauliflower. If you smoke those first then do the breading, it adds a nice umami smokiness.”
He prefers real smoke over liquid smoke.