Chefs from the Bradley County area will meet in Charleston to see who really cooks the best peas during the all-day International Cowpea Festival at 10 a.m. on Saturday.
They will do so as part of the International Cowpea Festival and Cook-Off taking place Saturday in Charleston Park to celebrate the history of a food that has long been grown in the area.
“Cowpea” is a generic term for legumes such as black-eyed peas, purple-hull peas and crowder peas, and festival attendees will get to see how five different chefs will put their own unique spin on how they are prepared.
Brian Mejia, assistant kitchen manager at The Catch seafood restaurant in downtown Cleveland, is no stranger to the Cowpea Festival, which is in its second year.
He is a North Carolina native who moved to Cleveland at the age of 10, later enrolling in the culinary arts program at Bradley Central High School.
Last year, he assisted chef Richmond Flowers, who oversees the high school’s program, as he competed and won the very first International Cowpea Festival Cook-off.
Though a different chef from his restaurant competed last year, Mejia was asked to try his hand at preparing a recipe for the festival, which he said would allow him to exercise his “passion.”
“I have a big passion to learn more about food,” Mejia said.
He said he looked forward to creating a new cowpea dish for the cook-off this year and seeing people’s reactions to it.
Mejia said he wanted to keep his plans for the peas a surprise, but added he expected he would use the skills he learned working at the seafood restaurant.
Courtney Jones, a manager at Lupi’s Pizza, said one thing that makes her excited about taking part in the cook-off is getting to work with an ingredient for which the area is known.
“I really stand behind local ingredients,” Jones said.
A Cleveland resident originally from Chattanooga, she said she had worked her way up through the restaurant business after a stint working in retail.
In addition to taking part in a local festival and cooking local ingredients, she said she was looking forward to getting to know the work of those who cook for other restaurants.
She described the event as “a fun opportunity to do something with other chefs.”
Jones said her dish is set to include a salsa made with cowpeas.
Steven Langstaff, a member of the broil team at the Bald Headed Bistro, said he was looking forward to getting a chance to compete in the Cowpea Festival this year.
The Charleston native said he missed the deadline to compete last year, so he readily took the chance to cook cowpeas this weekend.
Langstaff said he got his start in the restaurant business as a dishwasher at age 15 and worked his way up, holding various restaurant jobs along the way. After taking a five-year hiatus to work for a bowling-related business, he later joined the bistro’s staff.
He said he has enjoyed the return to cooking because it is something he genuinely enjoys.
He also described himself as a cook who likes to create new dishes rather than standing around supervising other kitchen staff, which he said means he is looking forward to using his “hands-on” approach at the competition.
“I like to actually have my hands on it,” he said. “It’s something I’m very passionate about.”
Langstaff said his recipe may incorporate both cowpeas and smoked beef brisket.
Cleveland native Zach Trew, executive chef and co-owner of Chandler’s by the Lake in Ten Mile, is another competitor.
Like Mejia, Trew was part of the Bradley Central High School culinary arts program under Richmond Flowers.
After graduating and leaving town to attend college in Kentucky, he returned to the area to find work in the restaurant business.
As has been the story with many chefs, he said he worked his way up from a more entry-level position. After some time, he said Flowers approached him with the idea of opening a restaurant with him by Watts Bar Lake.
He didn’t take part in competition last year with Flowers because he was away at college, but he said he was looking forward to this year’s opportunity because it meant another chance to do what he loved.
“I just love cooking,” Trew said. “I love seeing people enjoy what I make and create.”
He said his cowpea creation for the cook-off would have a “taste of fall” as the recipe he has been working on includes ingredients like apples, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Marshall Sisson, executive chef at Impressions Catering in Cleveland, is the fifth chef who will be joining the lineup in the professional division of the festival’s cowpea cook-off.
A Hixson resident who moved to Tennessee from Orlando, Fla., last year, Sisson said he was fascinated by the history of food.
He said the history of the cowpea in this area piqued his interest, and he thought the festival seemed like a good fit. He had also grown up cooking cowpeas with his grandmother long before starting his culinary career.
“It sounded like a fun day,” Sisson said.
Though he was still working to perfect his recipe, Sisson said he was working on a Southwest-style stew that would, of course, be made with cowpeas.
Chefs will offer samples of their dishes between 2 and 5 p.m. to those who have purchased souvenir spoons sold at the festival for $5. Those attendees will then get to vote for their favorites.
The winning chef will be named the “crowd favorite” and will win the prize of bragging rights.
Also at the festival will be an amateur cowpea cook-off, concerts from music artists like Billy Dean and The Collins Brothers, a “Princess and the Cowpea” pageant, a display of the winning pieces from the festival’s photography competition, an arts and crafts marketplace and other family activities.
Melissa Woody, vice president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau at the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce, said this second year is set to be better than the first.
“We just really enhanced what we did last year,” Woody said.
While the festival’s organizers had a lot of ideas to implement during its first year, she said this year will provide more opportunities for those ideas to come to life.
New additions include more family activities, like pony rides and a petting zoo.
Another new change is that the chefs in the cook-off will each display cards with their recipes so attendees can see what has gone into their dishes.
Admission to the festival is free.
For more information about the festival, visit its website at www.cowpeafestival.com.