Competition Dining: Battle Carolina Catch Seafood and State Farmers Market Vegetables
Posted October 29, 2015
Raleigh, N.C. — When preparing for a head-to-head matchup in the Got to Be NC Competition Dining challenge, it is not uncommon for chefs to conduct reconnaissance by secretly eating in an opponent’s restaurant beforehand. But when Joseph Cornett, head chef at the Flipside Café in Fort Mill, S.C., sat down to strategize, he realized something about his opponent, Ryan Conklin of REX Healthcare.
“I hope I never have to eat his food,” Cornett told the crowd at Wednesday night’s Battle of Champions. Luckily for Cornett, he had a chance to taste his opponent’s work at the Renaissance Raleigh North Hills instead of through a hospital visit.
The two chefs prepared three courses each, with every dish but dessert featuring fresh North Carolina seafood, and all dishes featuring vegetables from the State Farmers Market in Raleigh. Pro judges for the event included Michelle Bailey, executive chef at Smoky Park Supper Club in Asheville, food critic John Batchelor, Andy Hopper, chef and partner at Circolo Restaurant Group, and Lionel Vatinet, master baker at La Farm in Cary.
COURSE 1: NC White Shrimp, Chimichurri, Okra & Green Tomatoes, Smoked Bacon, Charred Cauliflower, Marinated Tomatoes, Smoked Green Tomato Butter (Flipside Café) Score: 29.347
The mild, plump shrimps paired well with the bright chimichurri, but the true thrills of Chef Cornett’s first offering were the small surprises hidden beneath: the smoky sauce, the dark crisp floret of cauliflower, briny okra and tomatoes, fatty bacon crumbles. It was a tour of the palate, by way of a lighter gumbo than you’ll ever find in Louisiana.
Lionel Vatinet highlighted Cornett’s shrimp as his favorite dish of the night, and the crowd agreed: Course 1 scored higher than any other on the evening.
COURSE 2: NC Sweet Potato Crusted Flounder, Jalapeno Cheddar Grits, Smoked Pink Lady Apple-Butternut Squash-Kale Salad, Johnston County Ham & Crowder Pea Vinaigrette, Sweet Potato Butter (REX Healthcare) Score: 27.525
Compared to the shrimp in the first course, the flounder was underwhelming. Multiple diners remarked that their flounder was dry, and the fried sweet potato crust was novel, it was under-seasoned. Luckily for Conklin, the jalapeno cheddar grits were perfectly rich, with just enough heat to cut through. Also notable was the ham-and-crowder vinaigrette, like the most complex gravy imaginable.
COURSE 3: Smokin' Holy Mackerel, Cider Braised Butternut Squash, Goat Lady Dairy Whipped Goat Cheese, Muscadines & Duck Fat Purple Potatoes, Pecan Dust, State Farmers Market Edible Pansies (Flipside) Score: 23.058
The mackerel was my favorite dish of the night. Chef Cornett’s composition, from the row of white and purple layered accompaniments to the purple pansy on white fish above a purple sauce, looked as much like a piece of art as an entree.
My table disagreed. “It’s just too oily,” one nearby diner said of his fish, while another found the idea of edible flowers entirely unappetizing. Worse, portion size varied greatly around our table, with some plates holding pieces of fish that seemed to have been halved and then halved again.
The dish was a lesson in two common mistakes Competition Dining chefs make: stepping too far outside the diners’ comfort zone, and using a recipe too involved to cook, plate, and serve to 100 guests simultaneously.
COURSE 4: Land & Sea: Seared NC Sheepshead, Roasted Shallot & Local Tomato Salsa, Mediterranean Green Lentils & Fried Fava Beans AND Slow Braised Veal Cheeks, Truffle-Parmesan Parsnip Puree, Pickled Oyster Mushrooms-Onions-Fresh Herbs (REX) Score: 28.730
If the mackerel was an example of how chefs can easily alienate eaters, Chef Conklin’s surf and turf course showcased the best trick to getting ahead in Competition Dining battles: throw red meat at the diners. The veal cheek was almost impossibly tender, pushing across earthy, rich flavors no fresh fish can match. The diner response was uniformly positive, with many happy not just for a change of pace, but for a new take on a classic combination.
COURSE 5: Spiced Pumpkin Layer Cake, Rum Apple Butter Mascarpone, Sea Salted Candy Apple Caramel, Brown Sugar Baked Apple, Funnel Cake Spaghetti Squash (Flipside) Score: 25.341
“When I got into town, everyone was talking about the fair,” Cornett said after the battle was over, adding, “So I thought about fair food, and Fall flavors.” The mascarpone and baked apples showcased the season’s deep, spiced flavors, but the dish’s standout component was almost certainly the crown of spaghetti squash funnel cake. Stuff it with a candy bar and it would have fit in perfectly outside Dorton Arena last week.
COURSE 6: NC Apple Fritter Bread Pudding, Ginger & White Chocolate Semifreddo, Maple Apple Butter, Vanilla Mascarpone, Butterscotch Sauce (REX) Score: 28.804
While the first dessert went full fair, Course 6 took the sweetness in a different direction, playing with a broader palate. Despite the apple fritter flavors, there was the slightest touch of salt in the crumble topping, mint to balance out the strong butterscotch sauce, and ginger shining through the quenelle of ice cream. It felt like the right way to end a six course meal.
Chef Joseph Cornett built a lead on the strength of his first course, but by the time dessert plates were cleared from the table it was not enough: Ryan Conklin and his REX Healthcare team topped Cornett’s Flipside Café, 28.261 to 25.914.
As diners cheered, fans and friends crowded Conklin for photos, handshakes, and autographs. The chef appeared equally elated and exhausted, understandable considering that a member of his kitchen staff needed to be replaced at the last minute due to untimely jury duty.
“I was sure it was going to be oysters,” a dazed but pleased Conklin admitted after his win was announced.
“Your mind is going all the different ways about what you’ll do before you come in, but then they tell you and you go blank,” he added.
But Conklin recovered from the initial shock wonderful. He was particularly happy with his surf and turf idea.
“The veal with the parsnip puree, that’s my kind of food. That’ what we do best,” Conklin said.
Across the room, a smaller crowd gathered beside Joseph Cornett.
“We thought we did everything right,” Cornett said, “but it didn’t go our direction. I was really happy with what we pulled off, especially the ideas we came up with at the farmers market. We took corn husks from someone’s decoration, smoked those, and used those to smoke the mackerel. I’m proud of that.” Yet, a disappointed Cornett couldn’t help but second guess his decisions.
“Maybe I didn’t push myself hard enough,” he said.
Before leaving, when REX Healthcare’s Ryan Conklin was asked how he would prepare for his next bout, Thursday night against Richard Miller, of Winston-Salem’s Graze, Conklin shrugged.
“I’m just going to sleep,” he said with a laugh.