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  • Writer's pictureSteven Keith

Young chefs grill up the goods at Regatta kids cookoff

Capitol Market’s All Fired Up kids grilling competition really lived up to its name this year. Grills were piping hot, temperatures were in the 90s and my taste-buds were lit up after judging the impressive meals prepared and served by nine young foodies on Sunday afternoon.

As part of this annual Charleston Sternwheel Regatta event, each 12 to 16-year-old contestant is given a $100 gift card and 45 minutes to shop for ingredients inside and outside Capitol Market, then has 90 minutes to cook a feast to present for judging.

Grilled steak with risotto by Will Ellis
Grilled steak with risotto by Will Ellis

And let me tell you, these young chefs in the making really brought it.

A fellow judge joked she thought she’d just be tasting traditional hot dogs or fancy PB&Js, so imagine her surprise when we were presented with plates like a fresh summer salad with homemade balsamic pearls, steak topped with truffle butter and sea salt, smoked mac-and-cheese in mini cast-iron skillets and a carved-out lemon skin filled with a silky sweet-tart cream.

Their culinary creativity certainly surpassed their ages!

I loved the peach, prosciutto, basil and brie crostini from Robert Schmid and the aforementioned truffle butter-basted steak from Will Ellis.

Lilliana Robinson’s glazed bourbon peaches over pound cake was my favorite dessert of the day, and the creamy sauce atop the Mexican street corn made by Kinley Hayes was so bright and tangy.

Chef Paul Smith coaches Matt Willits
Chef Paul Smith coaches Matt Willits

Max Willits presented a really nice star-shaped grilled watermelon salad topped with crunchy pistachios and Cameron Grubb hollowed out a giant pineapple to grill and fill with teriyaki shrimp, veggies and rice.

Zoie Bowles served us an awesome toasted steak sandwich, Wyatt Earl made his own buns (from scratch!) for steak sliders and Damian Blankenship topped his mini Mediterranean-inspired salmon burgers with fresh sliced cucumber and a zippy tzatziki sauce.

It was definitely one of the toughest food-judging assignments I can remember, with the six of us hashing it out for quite some time to reach a consensus.

It was nowhere near unanimous, but here’s where we landed in terms of awards.

  • Best Overall: Robert Schmid

  • Most Creative: Will Ellis

  • Best Use of Market Ingredients: Zoie Bowles

  • People’s Choice: Max Willits

All four winners received special imprinted water pitches made by another event sponsor: Blenko Glass.


WV’s Wine Spectator winners

Seven West Virginia restaurants have been honored on Wine Spectator’s annual list of places pairing the best food and wine lists across the country. That list includes three repeat winners from the state and four others making the cut for the first time.

Steak sandwich from Zoie Bowles
Steak sandwich from Zoie Bowles

Launched back in 1981, the prestigious awards represent the world’s only program focused exclusively on restaurant wine service.

Repeat winners from the Mountain State this year are:


The Wonder Bar Steakhouse in Clarksburg, which has appeared on the list since 2014.

Main Dining Room at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs (2016).

Final Cut Steakhouse at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in Charles Town (2018).

The four West Virginia restaurants making this list for the first time are:

Bourbon-grilled peaches on poundcake
Bourbon-grilled peaches on poundcake

Bistro 112 in Shepherdstown.

The Pines Country Club in Morgantown (members only).

Sip Downtown Brasserie in Huntington.

Wine Down on Market in Parkersburg

Most interesting in the announcement to me, however, was this ...

The magazine reports new restaurant openings this year have surpassed pre-pandemic levels for the first time since COVID crippled the industry back in 2020.

Another Sergio restaurant coming

Sergio LugoMata’s march to regional restaurant dominance continues with the announcement that he’s opening a fourth location within the next few weeks.

Smoked mac 'n' cheese, steak and veggies
Smoked mac 'n' cheese, steak and veggies

A new Guadalajara Modern Mexican restaurant in Barboursville will join the original location in Nitro offering modern Mexican fusion and traditional dishes from Jalisco, Mexico.

In addition to those two Mexican restaurants, LugoMata opened Sergio’s Cucina Italiana & Steaks on Main Street in Hurricane late last year and Sergio’s Cucina Italiana & Pizza on Charleston’s West Side, inside the former Books and Brews location, earlier this year.  

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Steven Keith is a food writer and restaurant critic known as “The Food Guy” who writes a weekly column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and has appeared in several state, regional and national culinary publications. Follow him online at or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or at

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