Durham, N.C. — When Team Captain KocinA – a trio made up of Carolina Escobar, of Chapel Hill’s Captain Ponchos, JP Murcia, the creative force at Raleigh’s KocinA Grill & Food Truck, and Matthijs Gerritsen – learned the secret ingredients for their first appearance in the Got to Be NC Competition Dining series would be bacon and eggs, they had a moment of panic.
“I said some things that can’t be printed,” Gerritsen admitted. Unlike many feature ingredients, diners have strong feelings about bacon and eggs, making them a challenge to work with.
Their kitchen opponents on Monday were Team Curt’s Cucina, who also felt the pressure from the signature ingredients. Helmed by Chef Curt Shelvey, the trio calls the Southern Pines Italian restaurant Curt’s Cucina home base. But after the initial worry, both teams turned in remarkably calm and collected performances, each producing three exceptional dishes.
Going into the evening’s competition, much of the discussion centered on how the opposing teams would integrate their respective Latin American and Italian influences. Would they dominate the breakfast staples, or show up with subtlety?
Competition Dining mastermind Jimmy Crippen had a plan to make sure the competitors couldn’t play it safe with their typical recipes.
“This year, we’re really challenging the chefs with a smaller pantry that forces them to be creative and work outside their comfort zone,” Crippen said. Part of that challenge meant that chefs could draft certain ingredients, making them unavailable to opponents.
Despite these restrictions, the chefs knew they had to deliver: the hungry diners waiting at Bay 7, located at Durham’s American Tobacco Campus, expected nothing less than perfection.
At Competition Dining, dishes are served blindly, with diners unable to tell who made which dish until the end of the night. For each dish, diners (the Joes) and local chefs (Pros) grade the dish on aroma, presentation, creativity and other factors. All scores are out of a possible 40 points. The score shown is the final weighted score for each dish.
COURSE 1: Scallop Ceviche, Spicy Roasted Tomato Salsa, Cilantro NC Egg Mayonnaise, Pickled Cucumber, Radish and Heritage Farms Cheshire Pork Bacon Chip (Captain KocinA) - Score: 27.538
A scallop is a popular first dish at Competition Dining, something many chefs use to start the conversation. But ceviche is anything but a common preparation, especially since many diners are weary of raw seafood. The dish was full of bright flavors, from the briny, citrus cured scallop to crisp garnish. Yet the star of the plate was the piquant salsa, something that almost didn’t happen. Escobar said after the event that the pantry restrictions left her without chiles. Curiously, the non-professional voters in attendance rated the first course the lowest of the six dishes they saw on Monday.
COURSE 2: NC Egg, Danish Blue & Umami Custard, Roasted Grape Tomato and Benton’s Bacon Conserve, Brown Butter Sherry Vinaigrette, Local Asparagus (Curt’s Cucina) - Score: 32.515
Many diners likely left Competition Dining on Monday wondering how they could buy umami powder - the pantry item that gave our second course its signature flavor. The egg custard was a complete contrast to the first dish, pushing deep, rich umami flavors throughout. It was a risk, a combination that could easily verge on overpowering and too forceful for an introductory course. But the team from Southern Pines managed to find a balance for a beautiful dish.
COURSE 3: Creamy Mimolette Cheese Barley, Black Truffle NC Egg Omelet, Braised Heritage Farms Cheshire Pork Bacon and Fried Leeks (Captain KocinA) - Score: 31.311
Captain KocinA’s second offering received their best score from the voting public, but the components of the dish seemed to fight against each other, never reaching the harmonious balance one hopes for in fine dining. Texture, specifically, was at issue: the omelet and fried leeks too chewy, the barley as tough as “al dente” allows. What saved the dish was the generous slab of fork-tender bacon, perhaps the most comforting and expertly prepared piece of pork diners received on Monday.
COURSE 4: Truffle Seasoned Heritage Farms Cheshire Pork Bacon Steak, Parmesan and Black Garlic Dust, Rosemary Garlic Seared Duck Breast, White Pepper & Rosemary Duck Glace, Benton’s Bacon Fat Roasted Fingerlings, Broccolini, Roasted Tomato NC Egg Hollandaise (Curt’s Cucina) - Score: 30.831
The Curt’s Cucina entree was the most divisive dish of the evening, with an equal number of diners picking at their duck and potatoes as those who cleaned their plates. The roasted tomato hollandaise was almost orange in color, with more complex, tomato-infused flavors than one tends to see in sad yellow sauces over an Eggs Benedict brunch. Yet, the dish felt more like a rough draft than a finished product. The individual components, though well-executed, refused to fit together, instead making something too rich, too salt laden, lacking in small details. The pool of sauce covering the fried potatoes and bacon made the dish seem like if fair food met fine dining. For the voting public, it earned the lowest rating of the three dishes Curt’s Cucina prepared.
COURSE 5: NC Egg Panna Cotta with Orange Confiture, Mixed Nuts, Fennel Seed, Maple Syrup and Benton’s Bacon Crumble (Captain KocinA) - Score: 28.819
Captain KocinA’s final course is a hallmark to Competition Dining’s new, more challenging format. The food truck team knew they had to use oranges and fennel seed at some point, each an ingredient they would have avoided otherwise. From that burden they created something stunning, a sweet, lemon colored panna cotta brimming with citrus and licorice notes. The most Sicilian dish of the night came not from the Italian comfort food restaurant, but from the team known for their empanadas and tacos. Go figure. Course 5 showcased what great, unexpected events happen during Competition Dining. Unfortunately for Team Captain KocinA, the paying diners weren’t as impressed. While the professional judges thought the panna cotta was as good as any dish of the night, the rest of the crowd rated it significantly lower. At Competition Dining, big risks don’t always get rewards from everyone in attendance.
COURSE 6: Dark Chocolate Ganache Cake, NC Egg Frozen Custard, Bing Cherry Verjus Honey Jam, Benton’s Bacon Marcona Almond Crunch, Outer Banks SeaSalt Salted Caramel, NC Strawberry Syrup (Curt’s Cucina) - Score: 31.297
While the rich cake and perfect custard were the focal point of the final Curt’s Cucina offering, the fun was in the four accouterments that offered a number of flavor combinations for diners to enjoy. The smoky bacon almond crunch contrasted the sublime and refreshingly un-saccharine strawberry syrup, while the tart verjus jam cut through the fall caramel flavors like a knife. The little touches dressed up the simple concept of cake and ice cream into a new, interesting dessert. It was an ideal end to a night full of food.
As the final scores flashed onto the screen, a loud cheer erupted from the many Southern Pines residents in attendance on Monday. Team Curt’s Cuchina had won, beating Team Captain KocinA 31.544 to 29.196.
Despite the competition, both teams focused on the friendship and community they built.
As Shelvey chatted with a reporter after his win, a stream of admirers who had made the trip from Southern Pines jumped in to give the chef bear hugs and snap grinning selfies. For a moment, he seemed more like the high school sports star who had hit the game winner than a kitchen veteran.
Speaking of his competition, Shelvey had nothing but praise. “We had a great time in the kitchen. Those guys are really good chefs, they brought some great food, they brought some great spirit in the kitchen today.”
“They were helping us plate, we were helping them,” Escobar said. Murcia seconded her sentiment. “It’s a competition, but it’s also about having fun. It’s definitely something we’ll do again,” Murcia said.
“But we’ll be back to win,” Gerritsen added.
By the end of the evening, Curt’s Cucina’s Chef Shelvey was already looking ahead to his next battle. “Whoever’s standing there on Thursday, be ready for us.”
Team Curt’s Cucina advances to the Durham finale on April 21. Tickets are still available.
When Matthew Poindexter isn't writing about food, he is the editor of Inch, a magazine of short poetry and microfiction. His work has appeared in ESPN, Meridian, The Awl, and other publications. He lives in Durham and also contributes to Raleigh & Co.