I love the Food Network Challenge shows, so when Charlotte decided to create a one-time local version, I jumped at the chance to host it.  It's the very first Find Your Center Southern Cooking Contest.  Find Your Center is part of Charlotte Center City Partners and the contest is part of the newly named Time Warner Cable BBQ and Blues Festival (got all that?).

First, the judges narrowed down all the entries down to two in each Southern cooking category: Mac & Cheese, Sweet Potatoes and Apple Cobbler.  We all met in a kitchen at Johnson & Wales University, set the clock and let them go!

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Johnson & Wales staff helps contestants Andrea Robson (back) and Angela Charles during the competition. The biggest questions were about the convection ovens cooking faster and where to find some spoons. 

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The winning dishes! Carla Brafford's Mac & Cheese Jalapeno poppers, Clarissa Lynch's Sweet Potato Biscuits, and Andrea Robson's Apple Cobbler. (congratulations to the runners up: Donte Fears, Scott Lindsley, and Angela Charles)

In addition to their dishes, the amateur Chefs needed to tell the story of their recipe. Carla says hers is Tex-Mex meets Southern (she doesn't say jalapeno.. she drawls jap-a-lee-noh), Clarissa talked about her family's slave history of making recipes from the lack of ingredients and Andrea's dessert is pure Pennsylvania Dutch brought down-home South.

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Thanks to the wonderful Johnson & Wales judges – (l-r) Chef Mark Allison, Chef Wanda Cropper and Chef Peter Reinhart. Behind them are winners Brafford, Lynch and Robson.

They move on to the next part of the competition on September 11th at Time Warner Cable BBQ and Blues.  I'll host another cook-off and we'll announce the overall winner.  You'll be able to watch the whole show on demand on Time Warner this fall.

The food was incredible, but what really knocked me out were the cameras.  When I started as a TV reporter, they still had separate cameras and decks (that's where the tape went!), connected by a cable.  Here, the crew had one professional-sized digital camera, and two other tiny little ones that look like something we'd use to snap pics of our kids. Amazing.  Also, I am getting old.