Fuquay-Varina's Finest met Will Work 4 Food, a team of chefs from Pinehurst Thursday night in the first of two semfinals in the 2016 Got to Be N.C. Competition Dining Series at 214 Martin in downtown Raleigh.
F-V's Finest advanced by virtue of a win Monday in a battle featuring tuna and olives. The chefs – Joseph Fasy, proprietor and executive chef at Hook and Cleaver Market on Broad and part owner and executive chef at Old North State Catering; Leo Cuthbertson, chef at Hook and Cleaver Market on Broad; and Bryan Dahlstrom, executive chef at the Crown Complex in Fayetteville – impressed the pro judges with their three dishes, scoring and average 31 points with the diners in the know and 30.45 overall to oust the Sandhills Chefs team.
Will Work 4 Food had an even more impressive route to the semifinal, working with bison and grains in a battle against Team Ironclad. The Pinehurst team – made up of Matthew Hannon, chef at Ironwood Restaurant; Jen Curtis, chef de cuisine at Chef Warren's Bistro in Southern Pines; and Niklas Anderson, sous chef at Curt’s Cucina in Southern Pines – scored more than 30 points on each of their three dishes and an average of 33.6 overall.
How it works
The teams learn the day's featured ingredients around noon, then have until dinnertime to prepare three dishes apiece, incorporating the ingredients to the best of their ability.
Every diner votes on every dish, grading them on presentation, aroma, overall flavor, secret ingredient flavor, execution, creativity, the use of the secret ingredient and accompaniments. "Pro" judges – invited chefs and other culinary experts – see their votes count for half of the total and are balanced by the "Joes," regular diners casting a ballot.
All scores are out of a possible 40 points.
When the scores are tallied, a winner is announced.
On Thursday, the ingredients seemed simple: cheese and applesauce. To be specific: Boxcarr Cheeses and Heirloom Goodness Applesauces.
Competition Dining courses are served blindly, with diners uninformed of who made which dish until the end of the night.
The scores shown below are the final weighted scores for each course.
Course 1: Local NC Heirloom Tomato & Canary Melon Panzanella, Boxxcar Lissome Cornbread, Boxcarr Campo Cheese, Bourbon Pickled Onions & Heirloom Goodness Fuji Pink Applesauce Tomato Butter, by Will Work 4 Food.
If first impressions are everything, this dish started the night on an uneven keel. The stacked elements of the dish worked on some plates, while others looked more hastily prepared.
Diners at struggled to know where to start but settled on the applesauce tomato butter, in a lush purple, as the best element of the dish.
Course 2: Pinenut-Crusted Boxcarr Cottonseed Cheese with Lavender Cloister Honey and Lusty Monk Wholegrain Mustard, Heirloom Goodness Crispen Applesauce Cipollini Onions, Balsamic Reduction, Local Blackberries, by Fuquay-Varina's Finest.
While the first course wasn't a resounding hit, dish No. 2 quickly turned the mood in the room. At the center was a meatball-sized, crispy, creamy, cheesy indulgence wrapped in pinenuts. The density of the cheese was cut by the powerful diversity of accompaniaments, which left diners reaching for more bread to soak them up.
Lusty Monk Wholegrain Mustard was a sinus-clearing revelation, and the Lavender Cloister Honey added just the right floral touch.
One pro judge at my table was unimpressed. "Anybody can fry a ball of cheese," he said. But for the comfort-food seekers, that ball of cheese hit the spot.
Course 3: Heirloom Goodness Courtland Applesauce Braised Carnitas, Courtland Applesauce ColdWater Creek Farms Grits, Local NC Corn & Pineapple Relish, Boxcarr Rockets Robiola Fondue, by Will Work 4 Food.
The aroma of the pork arrested diners before this course even arrived at the table. And grits of many flavors are a popular base for Competition Dining chefs. So this dish could have been a throw-away appeal to those same comfort-food diners, but instead it proved to be my favorite of the night. It also earned the highest composite score of the six courses.
I heard one diner say, "I don't want this to be over," while taking tiny bites to stretch out the experience.
The fondue, a weird greyish lump alongside richly roasted pulled pork, added a powerful and smooth cheese side.
While this was my favorite, I talked to others who were simply turned off by the cilantro garnish and graded this dish among their least favorite.
Course 4: Bastille Day Cindy Digh 's Clearview Farms Lamb Navarin, Shiitake-Porcini Heirloom Goodness Applesauce Johnny Appleseed Appleauce Reduction, Fresh Herb Boxcarr Handmade CheeseLissome Potato Puree, Gaufrette, by Fuquay-Varina's Finest.
This nod to the French was pulled together by a method that started with the lamb in a cast iron pan and resulted in a rich stew.
Despite it's many elements, diners found this dish to be oversold in the description.
"I don't taste the applesauce," said one.
"It's kind of flat," said another.
Course 5: Local NC Beet and Heirloom Goodness Winesap Applesauce Root Cake, Caramelized White Chocolate Boxcarr Cottonbell Cajeta, Boxcarr Cottonbell Custard, Winesap Applesauce Gastrique, by Will Work 4 Food.
Competition Dining is often won and lost in the dessert courses, and the first Raleigh semifinal proved no different. After four courses, the teams were within 2 tenths of a point.
The two desserts were very much alike in concept and presentation, but the taste and execution of this one stood out.
Jen Curtis, pastry chef for Will Work 4 Food, described the featured ingredients as some of her favorites, and said she was familiar with Boxcarr Cheeses, making for an easy plan that worked to her team's advantage.
Course 6: Mountain Apple Cake with Heirloom Goodness Stayman Apple Sauce & Perry Lowe Orchards Dried Apples, Bourbon, Apple Cider Glaze, Thai Basil Sour Cream Custard, Boxcarr Robiola Wafer, by Fuquay-Varina's Finest.
The second apple cake with a custard on top was ambitiously designed, but the melting custards dropped off plates even as they came out of the kitchen.
"When you have apples and cheese, you have opportunity," said one pro judge. "These desserts didn't deliver."
Will Work 4 Food's 30-point score on course 3 and dessert advantage put them over the top. They will compete against another finalist to be determined in the Raleigh final on Sunday, July 24.
Team leader Matt Hannon, of Ironwood Restaurant, said the day could not have run more smoothly.
"Once we got out ball rolling, it was all downhill," he said.