The chef and general manager of SAW’s Soul Kitchen in Birmingham and a competitive barbecue cook from Muscle Shoals are two of the 10 finalists competing in the Final Table of the World Food Championships.
Matthew Statham of SAW’s Soul Kitchen and backyard cook Morgan Cheek earned a spot in the WFC finals with wins in their divisions and $10,0000 each at the World Food Championships in Dallas last October.
The Final Table: Indy competition was originally scheduled to take place in May in Indianapolis, but COVID-19 delayed it until Aug. 8-9 with the $100,000 top prize is up for grabs.
Statham’s work at SAW’s Soul Kitchen was already turning heads in the culinary world when he tied for the top spot at the Made South Slider Showdown a couple of years ago. That win came with a Gold Ticket into the WFCs that were then being held in Orange Beach.
But when Statham was ready to cash in his ticket last year, the WFCs moved to Dallas and almost prevented him from competing.
When it was just a drive from Birmingham to Orange Beach, Statham said he could justify going without an expectation to win.
“Even if it crashes and burns, we’ve got a couple of days at the beach, which is never a bad thing,” he rationalized.
A trip to Dallas meant spending money on airline tickets, hotel stays and the like and raised the stakes.
“My wife wouldn’t let me off that easy,” Statham said.
So they did fundraisers like selling pork butts and a raffle where friends, family and fans helped fund the trip to Dallas.
“I was really overwhelmed by the response,” Statham said.
Once in Dallas, Statham was in the Chef category up against 40 of the best chefs in the world. After two dishes in the preliminaries, Statham was sitting in the top spot with 10 finalists cooking for the win.
“We cooked one more dish and we held on by what I believe was the closest margin they’ve ever had in the category but I think it’s just a testament to how strong the category was,” Statham said.
The dish he prepared for the win? Brunch Tart with Parmesan Herb Tuile, which gave Statham a final overall score of 93.02 out of a possible 100, giving him $10,000 and a trip to Final Table: Indy.
Cheek’s path to the final table was different.
He has spent the past few years with his Sweet Cheeks Pit BBQ team competing in backyard barbecue competitions. When he learned about the AFC and the ancillary competitions that could earn him a spot in, he signed up to compete in the burger ancillaries last year. After winning them all, Cheek had his Golden Ticket to Dallas competing in the Burger division at the WFC.
“Our first year competing at WFC was very intimidating being surrounded by so many accomplished chefs and past World Food Champions,” he said. “Kitchen Arena was like nothing we had ever experienced, and it definitely was an adrenaline rush.”
The Burger category’s opening round was presented by Bo Jackson’s Signature Foods. Competitors were tasked with creating a cowboy burger and a second burger of their choice.
For the second burger, Cheek went old-school with a double patty smash burger with caramelized onions, melted American cheese and BSB- Brown Sugar Bourbon bacon on a toasted brioche bun.
“It’s just an old-school smash burger. Just a good ol’ burger with cheese and sautéed onions, maybe a little special bacon jam,” Cheek said. “I knew it was good, but after looking at all of the other turn-ins … there were some incredible turn-ins, I mean they were beautiful burgers. I didn’t know. I was like, ‘Well, we had fun. It was a great experience. We’ll see what happens.’”
What happened was that “good ol’ burger” earned a perfect score of 100 from the judges and propelled Cheek to a huge lead in the finals, where he did a slight modification of the same burger to create “The Hometown Smashburger” for the $10,000 win and a trip to Final Table: Indy.
“That afternoon on the stage, I can’t explain it,” Cheek said. “It was awesome!”
At Final Table: Indy, Statham and Cheek will go up against the winners in the other eight categories from the WFC in Dallas. The first of three rounds for the Final Table will be a Pork and Parisian Gnocchi dish that will cut the field in half. Those final five will have to recreate a complex Duck dish curated by Chef Greg Hardesty of Studio C. The top three from that round will then have to recreate the Indiana-famous Sugar Cream Pie in the final round.
For Cheek, that as a far cry from barbecue and burgers.
“It’s a completely different world for me,” he said. “I’m so barbecue focused, I don’t know how to cook culinary, if that makes any sense. They started spitting off lingo with pots and pans and different things that I don’t even know what they’re talking about – I’ve got to Google all of this stuff. They talk about cutting stuff in different kinds of things. I don’t know what they’re talking about.”
He’s been practicing cooking duck. Maybe a bit too much practice.
“Oh my gosh, I’m ducked out! My family’s ducked out. My friends are ducked out,” Cheek said. “I don’t want to taste another duck right now.”
Cheek’s strategy going into the Final Table?
“Cook the best product I can without a smoker,” he grinned.
For Statham, he hopes to return to SAW’s Soul Kitchen with a win. One of four locations of the SAW’s collection of barbecue restaurants, the Avondale restaurant has undergone a renovation and Statham said those who have been away due to COVID-19 might not recognize it – though the food is still great.
It was SAW’s Soul Kitchen that brought Sweet Tea Fried Chicken and Pork and Greens to the menu and stood out in a city filled with culinary standouts.
Having two Alabama chefs in the final 10 at the WFC Final Table will add to the reputation coming off Birmingham’s Highlands Bar and Grill being named “Outstanding Restaurant in America” and its pastry chef, Dolester Miles, named “Outstanding Pastry Chef” by the James Beard Foundation two years ago.
“I think the country is maybe taking a little bit of notice to us,” Statham said. “Obviously with (Highlands Executive Chef Frank) Stitt winning James Beard for best restaurant and Dol being the best pastry chef in the country, people are starting to think, ‘Hey, maybe they can cook down there.’ I think this is just kind of another feather in the cap, I guess. Hey, we know what we’re doing down here and we’re trying to show the world that we do. Hopefully we can make some noise up there and make everybody look good.”
Final Table: Indy will take place in Indianapolis at Ivy Tech Community College. It is hosted by Visit Indy and sponsored by Ivy Tech Culinary Center, Maple Leaf Farms, Sysco, Red Gold, The Pork Board, and Culinary Crossroads. The 10 competitors are:
- Lidia Hadaddian, two-time Category Champion from Pasadena, California
- Jodi Taffel, 2019 Bacon World Champion from Altadena, California
- Matthew Statham, 2019 World Chef Champion from Fultondale, Alabama
- Morgan Cheek, 2019 World Burger Champion from Muscle Shoals, Alabama
- Ryan Hegland, 2019 World Steak Champion from Lakeville, Minnesota
- Josh Cooper, 2019 World Seafood Champion from Tallahassee, Florida
- Kelli Fairchild-Cochran, two-time Sandwich Champion from Merced, California
- Evette Rahman, two-time Dessert Champion from Orlando, Florida
- Rocky Julianelle, 2019 World Open Chili Champion from East Haven, Connecticut
- Ryan Murphy, 2019 World Barbecue Champion from Kansas City, Missouri
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)