Each year in October, Chattanooga celebrates its innovation, startup and entrepreneurship communities with Startup Week. The week is packed full of awesome seminars, panels, socials and many more events that bring together people from all corners of the business community and beyond. It’s a week filled with networking, learning and just having a great time with the community.
Earlier this spring, an online community called Chattanooga Eats launched, and it has already made a great impact in the food scene. Chattanooga Eats is a comprehensive guide to Chattanooga’s food scene. It was started by two guys who wanted to explore the local cuisine and make it more accessible to Nooga residents, travelers and tourists. CHA Eats also records podcasts that feature local chefs, restaurant owners and foodies who tell their stories for other Chattanoogans to hear. It’s a foodie (or in my case, food blogger’s) dream website, and the community around it is growing fast.
And of course, we couldn’t have Startup Week without a great food event.
This year for Startup Week, Chattanooga Eats hosted the first-ever Pop Up Restaurant Challenge.
It brought three chefs (well, two individual chefs and one chef pair) together to go head-to-head-to-head to win a grant to start their own restaurants or food trucks. While the chefs could provide some of their own ingredients, much of the produce used in the dishes was provided by Weekly Fig, a subscription-based, CSA-type program that delivers locally-grown produce straight to your door.
Competitors in the inaugural Pop Up Restaurant Challenge were Lention Jackson, Geoffrey Joynt and David & Denise Alcantara. Each chef (or pair of chefs) prepared a special dish for the judges and ticket-holding attendees to taste. We also had the privilege of watching the chefs cook and prepare their meals, which is always one of my favorite aspects of cooking.
I was so excited to be a judge at the Pop Up Restaurant Challenge, with three other awesome local foodies and food bloggers: Jodi of The Fashionable Foodie, Shawanda of Eat Drink Frolic (and founder of The Brunch Collective) and Justin of Nooga Foodie.
Each dish was unique and had its own delicious flair and flavor profile.
Lention Jackson prepared a spinach-stuffed, hickory-smoked pork with mushroom bacon marsala sauce, roasted sweet potatoes and green beans. Savory, juicy and scrumptious, with a hint of sweet with the potatoes. I could have eaten those potatoes all day.
Geoffrey Joynt treated us to sweet & spicy shrimp & grits. Admittedly I am not a seafood fan, but that shrimp was on fire. The grits cake sat on a butternut squash puree and was topped with a goat cheese mousse; the whole dish was drizzled in a hot pepper glaze. The flavors married together nicely to create an amazing dish.
David and Denise Alcantara gave us a New Orleans inspired chicken and andouille sausage gumbo. Their andouille sausage was homemade with pork shoulder, thyme, rosemary and other Cajun spices. And like any good gumbo, it had the trinity (carrots, onion, celery) and okra for an extra Southern touch.
Ultimately Geoffrey’s shrimp & grits won the hearts of the judges, and the spinach-stuffed pork won the audience favorite. If I could eat like that every day, I’d have to seriously commit to a gym membership.
In a city like Chattanooga with such a strong business community, it’s sometimes easy to forget that restaurants and food trucks are startups, too. Every business has to start somewhere. The Pop Up Restaurant Challenge gave foodie entrepreneurs their chance to get started and make their mark on the city we all love.
Startup Week was a whirlwind of special events and learning experiences, and I’m so grateful that I got to be a part of it, with my agency and with the Pop Up Restaurant Challenge. I’m already excited for next year’s Startup Week and can’t wait to see what’s new in my startup/entrepreneur/innovation bubble and beyond. There’s even word that a second Pop Up Restaurant Challenge might be happening.