Raleigh, N.C. — A four-round cooking competition reaches its peak this week when the finals are set.
Cooking for a Classic started last month with sixteen teams from kitchens around the Triangle. That field has been narrowed to two with the victory Tuesday night of Troy Stauffer of City Club Raleigh. He will face Rich Carter of Catering Works in next Monday's final.
Stauffer's Tuesday night competition against Sassool's Jonathan Ballard resulted in "stupid close" voting by diners and celebrity guests.
Each chef prepared three dishes: a starter, which was required to be vegan or vegetarian, a main with a protein and a dessert. Each food course was served with a chef-recommended drink pairing.
The contrast in styles was apparent from the appetizers.
Stauffer opened with a dish one diner called "a taste of spring," a bed of fresh ricotta accented by fresh greens, strawberries and a vinaigrette.
Ballard followed with a butternut squash curry that diners could smell coming. "You have to be a curry fan, and fortunately I am," one said.
When the first entree featured pork belly and scallop, diners wondered how the second chef would counter ingredients that were clearly a crowd favorite. "Way to work the crowd," one diner said of the pairing, which was served with a sorghum glaze. "These guys are swinging for the fences."
The answer: atmosphere. Before Ballard's seafood trio was delivers, servers delivered Mason jars of rosemary in dry ice to create a steamy visual effect, and the music soundtrack in the ballroom changed to the sound of waves crashing on the beach.
Unfortunately, the dish did not stand up to the hype. While beautiful and full of promise, the scallop, stuffed shrimp and grilled wahoo sat too long on the plate and were delivered lukewarm to diners at my table.
It was in the dessert course that the drink pairings shone. The first to arrive was an "Almond Joy," an adult milkshake one diner called "the best thing I had all night." It was thick, nuanced and could have comprised the entire dessert.
Ballard's drink was a refreshing cap to the evening featuring TOPO Distillery whiskey and a colorful rhubarb curl.
Stauffer served up "Chubby Hubby," modeled off a Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor. Malted ice cream topped a moist chocolate cake and was surrounded by a pretzel-peanut butter crumble.
"This is a winning dessert," one diner said.
Ballard answered with a simple crème brûlée served in an orange shell dipped in dark chocolate.
Ballard, Stauffer and all the Cooking for a Classic competitors donated their time and talents to create six-course food-and-drink menus for hungry ticket-holders. The winner, to be decided next week when Stauffer meets Carter, will drive away in the grand prize: a restored 1969 Corvette Stingray.
Tickets are still available for the finals, next Monday at 1705 Prime in Raleigh. Proceeds from tickets sold throughout the series benefit the nonprofit Lucy Daniels Center, which helps children with mental and emotional issues.