Lata and Weaver learn to do the hash dance at Waffle House 

Order Up

Michelle Weaver (left) and Mike Lata prep for the Waffle House Smackdown at this week's Charleston Wine + Food Festival

Jonathan Boncek

Michelle Weaver (left) and Mike Lata prep for the Waffle House Smackdown at this week's Charleston Wine + Food Festival

Fair warning: You are about to be scattered, smothered, and covered in Waffle House lingo.

For the first time in history, the Waffle House, every true Southerner's favorite chain restaurant, is about to take part in a food and wine festival, and ticketholders get to be a part of the short order action.

The Waffle House Smackdown pits two local chefs against two visiting chefs. In the first heat, Michelle Weaver of Charleston Grill will face off against Ashley Christensen of Poole's Diner in Raleigh, N.C. while Mike Lata of FIG and the Ordinary will take on Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Ky. The top short order cooks will then battle in a final showdown, and the winner will be given the ultimate prize, the Master Blaster award.

To prepare for the event — where they will be judged on speed, presentation, and taste — Lata and Weaver headed to the North Charleston Waffle House on a recent rainy Tuesday afternoon, donned paper caps, put on their aprons, and got busy at the grill. Lata quickly joked that it was a homecoming for him as he'd spent some time as a short order cook at the Ponderosa Steakhouse.

The first order up was the two-pork chop plate with hashbrowns. They slapped the chops on the griddle, no seasoning, and watched them cook for three minutes. Then came the freeze-dried and reconstituted potatoes in the hashbrown ring. They waited and watched the hash browns dance on the hot surface — an unusual experience on the line at the Waffle House where cooks are rated by how much they can cook per hour. A corporate cook gets the Master Blaster award for making $300 worth of food an hour — and that's with an average ticket of $13. Do the math, and that's about 23 meals. Trainer John Hawkins, a division level manager, can handle $550 an hour.

On this afternoon at the North Charleston location, the tables were pretty much empty, except for a chain-smoking, newspaper-reading woman in the corner. But she was content with her coffee and cigarettes. The chefs laughed and joked, convincing themselves that this was going to be easy.

But then came the Waffle House omelet test.

Twenty minutes later, six discarded omelet plates were scattered down the counter, as Weaver struggled to retrain herself in the Waffle House technique: two eggs get whipped in a milkshake blender, a ladle of butter and soybean oil covers the small frying pan, and the eggs get poured in and shaken as they form together. Once set, the trick is to flip the omelet by tossing the pan. Once flipped, the toppings are added and the omelet is folded over as it's slid onto a plate. Easier than it looks. Weaver said she was being dogged by the French chefs of her past who clamored in her head: "Zat is not ze way to make an omelette!"

After executing a perfect flip and getting a "Nice!" from Lata, she threw the pan back on the grill and pleaded with Hawkins to move on to the next lesson. "Isn't there something else we can work on?"

Lata, mystified by not seasoning while cooking, nibbled a bite of omelet and wondered where the flavor was coming from. "Taste that," he handed a bite to Weaver, "It tastes seasoned. Where's it coming from?"

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They concluded that it was from that soybean oil-butter concoction. "It's magic oil," said Weaver. "It's defying the laws of cooking. There's no flash point. You can use it when it's cold."

"We'll have some of that, right?" asked Lata, making sure the magical Waffle House ingredient would come with them to the competition.

Hawkins joked, "Oh yeah, we'll bring that, you bring the booze."


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