Toast to the Melt winner

Denise Irvine speaks to WFI’s top toastie maker

Chef Sophie Robinson is beaming this morning, and it’s all because of Green Eggs & Ham, her award-winning cheese toastie.

It’s been named the overall winner in Waikato Food Inc’s Meyer Melt Challenge, taking the toastie title in a close contest among 19 regional restaurants and cafes. Sophie is head chef at Punnet Eatery, Tamahere, near Hamilton, and she says it’s a great result for her kitchen team.

The news is delivered to Sophie, and Punnet owner-operator, Haley Bicknell, during a surprise visit by a VIP posse: there is Miel Meyer, general manager of Melt Challenge sponsor Meyer Cheese; Waikato Food Inc projects and events manager Julia Clarke; and The Breeze radio hosts Stu Smith and Camille Guzzwell. They come bearing flowers and a terrific toastie trophy.

Sophie says she spent about a month developing her Melt entry, and she had the much-loved Dr Seuss book, Green Eggs and Ham, in her mind when she began.

“It was a bit of fun and the ideas spun out from there. We wanted to have a lot of local suppliers involved in our toastie; we wanted to give a shout-out to them. We did a few trials, and all our suppliers were really cool to work with.”

The finished product was a custom-made Volare fennel croissant, filled and toasted with smoked ham from Te Awamutu butcher Expleo, plus Meyer vintage gouda and Clevedon Buffalo Oaxaca. It was topped with a herby fried egg, and served with Punnet’s homemade tomato chilli jam.

Says Sophie: “The Volare fennel croissant was really the starting point, Expleo did the ham especially for us, it is beautiful, and I wanted two cheeses, the Oaxaca for its melting qualities and the gouda for its amazing flavour.”

Sophie says Punnet customers loved the toastie.  And clearly the judges did too. Melt judging is anonymous, with all entries tasted and marked in the first round, and the top five in the second round. Judges said Punnet’s entry was a really thoughtful selection of local products, melded together beautifully, a clever take on a classic toastie.  “It was on point, well balanced, and there was a nice twist with the fennel croissant.”

Waikato Food Inc’s Julia Clarke says the Melt competition, now in its third year, is a perfect counterpoint to WFI’s more complex Matariki Dish Challenge, which kicks off this month.

“Melt is a fun competition; this is the toastie season and the competition resonates with eateries and audiences. It was instantly successful; people love the idea of eating a cheese toastie.” She praises the high calibre of entries and says it was a closely fought contest.

Sponsor Miel Meyer is also partial to cheese toasties, he got to eat several of the entries, and he rates the Melt Challenge. “I like the fact that the challenge is light on rules; the main thing is to make a damn good toastie. It gives chefs plenty of freedom and there is a great diversity of flavours and creativity.”

Customers were asked to pick their favourite toastie, and Melt’s People’s Choice Award went to Tirau’s Tucker Bar & Eatery. Its entry, Spicy Cheeseburger Melt, comprised butter-fried brioche-style bread, a quarter-pound of chargrilled Waikato Hereford beef, Meyer smoked gouda, mozzarella, and spicy Tucker sauce. With kumara wedges and aioli on the side.

Tucker Bar head chef Lucas Currie, who co-owns the business with wife Janice, is delighted with the win.  Like Sophie Robinson at Punnet, Lucas went for local ingredients in his entry. The brioche-style bread he used is made by his Tirau main street neighbour, The Baker, just four doors down.

Tucker’s toasties were a hit with the lunch-time crowd. “Our customers loved them,” says Lucas. Which kind of sums up the happiness of the entire Melt Challenge.