Cowpea festival set for Saturday: Local chefs prepare to compete with their best recipes
Sep 12, 2012 | 1641 views | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Cowpea festival
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Charleston’s first-ever festival dedicated to cowpeas will play host to a professional cooking competition Sept. 15, allowing area chefs to combine their love of food with the area’s agricultural history.

The one-day festival at the Charleston City Park will host two cowpea cook-offs, one amateur and one professional. The festival starts at 10 a.m. and will also feature the “Princess and the Cowpea” beauty pageant, a variety of musical performances and an arts and crafts market.

Chefs are scheduled to compete at the festival in front of the pickiest judges organizers could find ­— the festival-goers. Anyone willing to purchase a $5 sampling spoon can sample the dishes entered in both the amateur and professional divisions.

“Don’t just come expecting black-eyed peas,” competitor Richmond Flowers said, adding that the chefs will be adding their own creative touches to the food. “Expect good food.”

Flowers has had a unique role in the competition in that he has helped provide the festival with volunteers. Some of his students will serve as assistants to him and the other chefs.

He is a 10-year culinary arts teacher at Bradley Central High School and is currently head of the school’s culinary arts department. He graduated from the school himself before going to culinary school and now spends his time helping current high school students learn to cook.

“I’m looking forward to seeing my students work with other professional chefs,” Flowers said. “I am looking forward to seeing the other chef’s creations, too.” 

Another chef taking part in the cook-off is Pete Spinks, chef at Cafe Roma in Cleveland.

Spinks said he got into the culinary field for one reason.

“I got into it because I like to eat,” Spinks said. “I can find enjoyment in just about anything.” 

He has been with Cafe Roma since 2003, and the 19-year Cleveland resident is a culinary arts graduate of Sullivan University.

Spinks said he is eager to take part in the cook-off because competing with his cooking is still a pretty new experience for him.

“I’ve always wanted to do some kind of competition,” Spinks said.

The third chef in the competition is Eric Elkins, executive chef at the Cleveland Country Club. He began working there in 2000 after he had learned the culinary craft working at a restaurant owned by his father, and training under four different chefs.

Elkins is a Cleveland native who said he inherited his love of cooking from his grandmother when he was a boy.

“I was always right beside her and wanted to know what she was doing,” Elkins said.

His current job has Elkins cooking a variety of foods for a wide range of events at the country club. When it comes to his food, he said he does not have just one specialty. Instead, he enjoys making “all of it.” 

Keith Byars, kitchen manager and chef at Catch Bar and Grill in Cleveland hopes to bring his love for Southern seasonings to the competition. The Hattiesburg, Miss., native moved to Cleveland to be near his parents who live in Chattanooga and said he “saw the opportunity to be more than just a kitchen manager” at his current restaurant.

Byars said he has no formal culinary training, but he has worked in various restaurant positions since the age of 15. He started as a bus boy and “crawled up through the ranks.” He added that his mentors have taught him the value of making everything he cooks taste good.

“You have to make it look pretty good,” Byars said. “But you have to make it pretty good to eat.”

Kathy Keller, head cook and manager at Farmhouse Restaurant, is the most recent addition to the cook-off, as well as the competition’s only female chef. A Cleveland native, Keller grew up learning how to cook from her mother and other family members.

She began working at Farmhouse Restaurant when it opened in 2005. Her current position is her first in the culinary field, but she is already familiar with cowpeas and what Bradley County residents like from their food.

“I’m probably the only one [in the cook-off] who’s not a chef. I’m a cook,” Keller said. “But I think it will go well.” 

Sponsor Whirlpool has provided the festival with five gas ranges for the cook-off, and organizers chose five chefs so each range will be used. Bush Brothers & Company, another sponsor, will be providing all the cowpeas for the cook-off.

Woody said organizers hope to make the festival an annual event, not unlike the National Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburg, or the Cleveland Apple Festival.

“It’s a very good thing to be starting a festival in Bradley County,” Flowers said.

Flowers said a lot of attention gets paid to the history around the Ocoee area in Polk County, but he is glad local residents now have another reason to celebrate another part of Bradley County’s history.

Charleston was once known as the “Cowpea Capital of the U.S.” because of the number of cowpeas grown in the area.

“Cowpea” is a generic term for a type of peas that includes black-eyed peas, crowder peas, purple-hull peas and others, Woody said. The legumes were originally called cowpeas because farmers originally grew them to use for animal feed before people began to introduce them to their own tables.