What does Carowinds’ new chef have in common with a roller coaster?
He can show you a breathtaking view of two states, he can take you on a wild ride – and he can make you hang on to your stomach.
Luckily, that last one is in a good way (we hope). Krzysztof Siuta – we’ll stick with Chef Kris from here on out – started his job last Labor Day with the assignment of making the food at Carowinds more than funnel cake and French fries.
“Carowinds wasn’t known for food and they wanted to change that,” he says. “It’s going to be a cultural change – we’re not here to just serve hot dogs.”
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Since Carowinds straddles the Carolinas border, the park decided to embrace a focus on foods of the South. For Chef Kris, who grew up in a Polish/Italian family in New Jersey, that meant spending the winter in a crash course to figure out what “Southern food” means.
The results will be on display starting Saturday, with Taste of the Carolinas, a food and wine festival being held in the park on weekends through May 17. The festival will include booths with tastings of 36 items that showcase food traditions from the mountains to the coast.
Dividing the two states into nine areas, they’ll have dishes like Smoked Trout Rillette Flatbread (Asheville/Mountain region) and Vanilla Coke Boiled Peanuts Over Ice Cream (Calabash region), Neese Sausage, Fig and Goat Cheese Turnover (Piedmont region) and Beer-Basted Pulled Pork Sliders (Lexington Barbecue region).
The festival isn’t the only place to get a Southern emphasis, though. Chef Kris has worked Southern-themed dishes throughout the park. You can get pimento cheese fries at the Dockside Fries stand and red velvet funnel cake (actually a funnel cake topped with a puddle of red velvet cream cheese dipping sauce).
“If I didn’t have something red velvet, I’d be in trouble,” he jokes.
In his last job, Chef Kris lived in West Virginia while he worked for Sodexo, overseeing food service programs at health care facilities from Cleveland to Fort Lauderdale. But he says Southern food is still mostly new to him. So he spent the winter taking road trips to Myrtle Beach and digging into library collections, “to immerse myself in Carolina culture, not just now, but back when.”
“What’s down here? The Internet only has so much. There’s the barbecue scene, but there’s a whole lot more.”
He found surprises, including the wineries in North Carolina and the hard cider at Windy Hill Orchard in York County.
“There’s a great food scene right here in Charlotte,” he says. “Indian markets, Mexican markets, Asian.”
One of his favorite discoveries: At an Indian supermarket, he found wheat pellets and discovered that when you fry them, they turn into crispy tubes in different colors. He flavors them with fruit powders and calls them Fun Fries.
They’re such a hit, they may be added at other parks in the Cedar Fair Entertainment chain.
The hard part of creating new food for an amusement park isn’t just dreaming it up. It has to be portable – people want to walk and eat. It has be something you can produce in huge amounts – the park serves thousands of people on summer weekends. And it has to be simple enough that teenage park employees can reproduce it at 47 food venues, from carts to stands.
Chef Kris hasn’t just added the Southern foods, though. There’s a gluten-free stand now (look for it near the bumper cars) and healthful options like shaker salads – you shake them up to mix with the dressing – at Coke Marketplace across from the entrance to Fury, the newest roller coaster. “It’s a lot,” he says. “For the last seven months, I’ve felt like I’m building Rome.”
In all the Southern exploration, he says, he found a lot of food he really likes, like pimento cheese (“I had no idea what pimento cheese was.”)
He also says he’s found an adopted home.
“Southern food is not just food,” he says. “It’s an experience. It’s all about family, eating together. I’m not a Southern boy, but I’ll be here the rest of my life. I’m done with snow.”
Taste of the Carolinas at Carowinds
When: 11 a.m. until an hour before closing on Saturdays and Sundays through May 17.
What: You get tastes, not whole portions, from booths representing nine regions of the Carolinas.
How much: Tastes are $4 each at the festival; you can get park admission and five tastes for $57.99 online.
Details and tickets: www.carowinds.com/taste.
Taste of the Carolinas Menu
What dishes did Carowinds chef Krzysztof Siuta come up with to represent the regions of the Carolinas?
Smoked Trout Rillette Flatbread
Appalachian Cheese Plate
Mushroom Ravioli With Smoked Turkey and Wild Herb Butter
Pecan Cinnamon Bread Pudding With Cream Cheese Icing
Upstate South Carolina:
Jalapeno Pimento Cheese Balls With Cranberry Jelly
Brunswick Stew Over Carolina Rice
Beef Corn Pone Pie
Sour Cherry and Fig Smoothie
Fried Oyster Flatbread Po’boy
Coastal Carolina Crab Soup
South Carolina Barbecue:
Pulled Pork Spring Roll With Carolina Mustard Sauce
Carolina Gold Hash and Rice
Hickory-Smoked Chicken Wings
Red Velvet In-and-Out Cupcake
Seafood Gumbo over Carolina Rice
Fried Amberjack With Calabash Hushpuppies
Grilled Corn Pudding
Vanilla Coke Boiled Peanuts Over Ice Cream
Fried Green Tomato Souffle
Hatteras Clam Chowder
Outer Banks Honey Gelato
Beer-Based Pulled Pork Sliders
Barbecue Chicken Slider With Lexington Sauce
Barbecue Ribs Over Ketchup Slaw
Homemade Moon Pies
Sweet Tea Glazed Chicken Over Cabbage and Beets
Shrimp and Grits
Sweet Potato Dumplings
Broasted Chicken With Drip-Pan Potatoes
Creamed Leeks and Butter Beans over Biscuit
Neese Sausage, Fig and Goat Cheese Turnover
Strawberry Flan With Wild Berry Glaze