Taste of Blue Ridge Announces the 2023 Brand of Excellence Winners!

Taste of Blue Ridge is proud to bring together culinary industry leaders from all across the Blue Ridge region, including amazing chefs, restaurants, hotels, and more. Each year, we recognize the members who have achieved remarkable excellence through the Root to Table Brand of Excellence.

 Winners of this award are recognized based on five major factors:

  1. Excellence in cooking
  2. Social activity and impact in the community
  3. Highlight local farmers and food artisans in their menus
  4. Support for educational culinary programs
  5. Support for food challenges in the community

This year, we have decided to award four chefs who have gone above and beyond this year. We look forward to seeing what they – and everyone else – can contribute to our wonderful community in 2024 and beyond!

2023 Brand of Excellence Winners

Cheryl Strasser – Co-owner and Chef for The Cowbell Kitchen

Cheryl Strasser and Bre Grant of Cowbell KitchenCheryl Strasser and her partner Bre Grant just recently joined the Taste of Blue Ridge community in August of 2023, but have already made a massive impact over that short period of time. Our appreciation for this dynamic team has only grown the more that we have worked with them!

Chef Cheryl and Bre are driven women with a clear focus. Not only are they dedicated to supporting the culinary community, but they also exhibit a profound passion for their local community.

Cheryl collaborates with over ten local farmers, including Tudor Hall Farm in Jefferson County and Spring House Farm in Loudoun.

Cowbell Kitchen actively supports The Love, KK Foundation honoring the life of Kaeley “KK” Brady, a former co-owner of the shop. The foundation’s mission aligns with KK’s passions, particularly the empowerment of small female-owned local businesses. Their new King Street Collective project provides a space for women aspiring to launch their entrepreneurial ventures.

Chef Cheryl generously contributed her time and products to the first Taste of Blue Ridge  fundraiser, held in October, which successfully raised over $10,000 for the Root to Table Youth Food Challenges programs!

We thank and honor Chef Cheryl for all of her contributions to the industry!

Chef Mary Ellen Diaz – Executive Chef at Alma Bea

Chef Mary Ellen DiazChef Mary Ellen Diaz has been a valuable member of the Taste Blue Ridge community since she first got on our radar at the Salute to Women in Culinary and Agriculture event on March 14, 2023.

Chef Mary Ellen actively engaged in the culinary community in 2023, participating in three Root to Table events. Not only did she showcase her culinary prowess there, but she also made a significant impact through her involvement in the Winter Soup Program, generously providing over 100 half gallons of soup.

A native of Alexandria, VA, Chef Mary Ellen has deep familial roots to the Appalachian region. Her culinary journey includes training in Paris and Lyon, collaborating with Michel Trama in Agen, France, and serving as the Executive Chef at various Chicago restaurants, where she created the North Pond restaurant concept. Currently, she spearheads the social entrepreneurial venture, First Slice Pie Cafe, in Chicago.

Chef Mary Ellen’s commitment extends beyond the kitchen as she owns a farm in Loudoun County and recently established Alma Bea in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, reconnecting with her Appalachian roots.

Chef Mary Ellen has shown unwavering support for Taste of Blue Ridge events and fundraisers. We look forward to working with her more in the years to come!

Roderick “Pete”  Smith – Chef and Owner of The Chef Feature Co.

Chef Pete dishing Sauce at Market SalamanderChef Pete is a newcomer to the Blue Ridge culinary scene, but has been an eager member of the Root to Table movement who has made incredible contributions in his short time with us.

As a native of Florida, Chef Pete made his mark at the young age of 22 when he helped to open the Restaurant Medure. With his guidance, the restaurant was awarded the prestigious Four Diamond award four consecutive years. He has gone on to experience a decorated career, owning two restaurants and one catering company. However, his first passion is for cooking, which can be found in every bite at the excellent Market Salamander in Middleburg, VA.

Today, Chef Pete is working independently expanding his private chef services through The Chef Feature Co. as well as handpicking culinary events for him to orchestrate including his cooking class and private farm and whisky tours with Ovoka Farms, a Wagyu Beef farm in Upperville, Virginia. He also works as a culinary consultant for the restaurant hospitality industry. 

Since joining the Taste of Blue Ridge in January, he has already made a huge impact on our community. He was instrumental in the success of our Winter Soup Program and has served faithfully as a member of our first Chef Advisory Board, where he helped coordinate the first-ever Salute to Women event and the Taste of Excellence series in July.

We thank Chef Pete for his dedication to our community and look forward to working with him even more in the future!

Marcus Repp – Corporate Director of Food & Beverage at Noble House Hotels & Resorts 

Marcus Repp talking to Root to Table guestsMarcus Repp has been a faithful partner of Taste of Blue Ridge since 2018, back when our mission was just beginning. Marcus has shifted roles since our partnership began, but his commitment to this community and to the industry has remained unwavering, and for that we honor his contributions in 2023.

Former Director of Food and Beverage and Executive Chef for Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg, Virginia, Marcus now is now Corporate Director of Food and Beverage for Noble House Resorts and Hotels. Marcus excels at Epicurean Adventures creating dining experiences that transform your travel.

Marcus is extremely well-traveled, taking the gospel of Blue Ridge cooking with him all around the country and beyond. As a member of the Chef Advisory Board, Chef Marcus has helped us expand our reach exponentially, brightening the future of what Taste of Blue Ridge can be for 2024 and beyond. If you see new additions to our ranks in the coming months and years, it’s likely thanks to the efforts of Chef Marcus!


Recognizing the culinary professionals who have excelled in their commitment to both the excellence of the food experience here in our region and addressing food challenges in their communities has been a goal of Taste of Blue Ridge since I founded Taste in 2017. Seeing this recognition come together as a yearly event is beautiful.” – Nancy Craun (Founder and CEO)

Meet more of the talented Chefs of the Region >>

Find our Chef’s favorite farmers >>

Meet our Growing Food Community