Raleigh, N.C. — It was the first time competing for both chefs at Wednesday night’s Got to Be NC Competition Dining, but as culinary veterans they each brought years of experience to the table and were ready for the challenge.
Curt’s Cucina Chef Curt Shelvey took on Tobacco Road Sports Café Chef Patrick Cowden. Both entered the night battle-tested with well-established records as both head chefs and experienced restaurant owners.
Shelvey was born and raised in New England and has been in and around the restaurant business since he was a kid. Starting out as a dishwasher and prep cook in Italian restaurants, he took a short break from the kitchen to serve four years in the U.S. Marine Corp. After, he returned to his passion - the kitchen - and made his way to South working as a chef in various resort hotels along the east coast. After 10 years as a chef at the Pinehurst Country Club, he opened his own Italian restaurant. Curt’s Cucina in Southern Pines has been open for four years.
Cowden has his own long list of credential with 30 years of culinary experience. Over the years, he has lead the kitchens of several Triangle restaurants and even opened his own restaurant in north Durham. He was named executive chef of Tobacco Road Sports Café in 2011 after a long stint at The Weathervane in Chapel Hill. A longtime resident of the Triangle, he is committed to using North Carolina products in his dishes.
But before we talk about the dishes, you probably need to know the secret ingredient! The crowd let out loud applause when it was announced that the secret ingredient was Bakers’ Southern Traditions Peanuts.
The peanuts had to be featured in each chef's three dishes. Peanuts with dessert always makes sense, the challenge would be making it stand out. How would the chefs incorporate peanuts into meat dishes? The diners were eager to find out!
The featured beer of the evening came from White Street Brewing in Wake Forest. They brought three of their popular beers – their Scottish Ale, Hoptimist IPA, and Kolsch. The Scottish Ale is a favorite of mine and I found it a great pairing with the nutty dishes of the evening.
When the evening’s host and Competition Dining founder Jimmy Crippen, introduced the chefs to the sellout crowd both received a warm welcome, but the roar of the crowd told me that many of Chef Shelvey’s supporters had made the drive up to Raleigh from Southern Pines.
As with all Competition Dining events, the dishes are served and no one knows who made what until after the scores are tabulated. Here's a rundown of each course, reviews and results. In each round and overall, diners (the Joes) and local chefs (the 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 weighed score for each dish.
Course 1: Little River Lump Crab & Scallop Cannelloni, Grilled Octopus, Roasted Baker’s Peanut-Tomato Salsa, Black Pepper Peanut Buerre Blanc (Shelvey) Score: 28.12
The night was off to a great start with this first dish. The use of peanuts in the salsa was creative and featured the secret ingredient well. Initially some at my table were unsure about the octopus but when the dish arrived they all enjoyed how it was mixed in and complimented the lump crab.
Course 2: Seared Wester Ross Scottish Salmon, Baker’s Peanut-Coconut Curry Sauce, Peanut Brussels Sprout Blood Orange Slaw, Kentucky Yaki Gastrique, Star Anise Honey, Kerala Curry Pappadam (Cowden) Score: 29.18
The momentum remained high with this next dish but some were left wondering where peanuts were used. The salmon and slaw were delicious, but the diners at my table agreed it was hard to taste any peanuts in the both the slaw and curry sauce. The dish was delicious but my table agreed the use of the secret ingredient was not as strong as the first dish.
Course 3: Maple Leaf Farms Duck Fat & Rosemary Roasted Veal Loin, Green Lentil Ragout, Swiss Chard, Baker’s Peanut & Nueske’s Bacon Demi, Peanut Praline Bacon (Shelvey) Score: 25.87
This was one of the favorite dishes at our table. The flavors of the crispy strip of peanut praline bacon combined with the duck fat and rosemary veal loin won over our table. We all scored it very high and thought it was the dish to beat. All the more reason we were shocked when it was the second lowest scoring dish of the night!
Course 4: White Street Scottish Ale BBQ-Braised Veal Cheeks, Looking Glass Creamery “Bear Wallow” Grits Cake, Baker’s Peanut-Smoked Tomato Romesco Sauce, Peanut Hushpuppy, Corn Relish (Cowden) Score: 27.17
After experiencing course 3, this dish was a bit of a disappointment. It smelled wonderful but the peanut smoked tomato romesco sauce made the bbq-braised veal cheeks a bit too sweet. The grits cake added a nice texture to the dish, but made the peanut hush puppy seem like an unnecessary addition. This was a lower scoring dish at our table but the Pros ended up scoring it a whole two points higher than the Joes.
Course 5: Baker’s Peanut Butter Semi-Freddo, Red Wine Cherries, Dark Chocolate Espresso Sauce, Peanut Brittle, Basil Sugar (Shelvey) Score: 32.25
This dessert was a show stopper. When the dish first arrived, a guest at my table proclaimed, “Not too many of these will be sent back!” The peanut butter semi-freddo was light and fluffy and had just the right amount of peanut flavor. Combined with the sharp contrasting flavors of red wine cherries and the espresso sauce only enhanced the experience. Likewise the peanut brittle and basil sugar sprinkled on the dish provided a nice crunch to contrast the creamy freddo. This proved to be the highest scoring dish of the night at 32+ points each from both the Joes and the Pros.
Course 6: Chocolate Chunky Baker’s Peanut Butter Whoopie Pie, Salted Peanut Caramel Sauce, Fig Jam, Ran-Lew Dairy Cream Top Milk Shot (Cowden) Score: 23.77
I enjoyed this last dish, but something about this dessert under-whelmed me after experiencing course 5. The creativity was top notch and my table was impressed with the use of the whoopie pie, but in the end it just didn’t seem to work out well. The chunky peanut butter and fig jam were both nice, but together it tasted overly sweet and heavy. Having the milk shot to help wash it down was nice, but the density and sweetness of this dish won over only a few at our table. I think most diners agreed as this was the lowest scoring dish of the night.
Crippen joked that the nights event was a “Battle of the old Guys” highlighting both the age and experience of the seasoned chefs. He noted that the kitchen had a friendly and jovial feel with both teams getting along like old friends all afternoon. Later, Chef Cowden stated that everyone got along great in the kitchen and that “there were no egos, just amigos” in the kitchen that day.
As the scores were revealed for each course there was noticeable surprise by many in the dining room when it was revealed course 3 had only earned 25.87 points. Many felt it would be among the highest. As the scoring went back and forth with neither chef in a commanding lead it became clear the determining factor would be the dessert scores in the end.
While the crowd was disappointed Chef Shelvey’s course 3 was scored as low as it was, Shelvey erased the deficit with an incredible 32.25 score for his dessert course which lead him on to victory over Chef Cowden by 2 percentage points. The crowd erupted with applause and the two chefs hugged each other reaffirming the comradery and friendship they had forged battling in the kitchen that night.
Shelvey will go on to face Chef Chelsi Hogue of Ed's Southern in Goldsboro during a quarterfinal battle on Feb. 16. Tickets are still available.