Raleigh, N.C. — "You just cook good food," said Ryan Conklin, executive chef at Rex Healthcare and a competitor in Monday's semifinal of Got to Be NC Competition Dining: Triangle.
And he and his opponent, Christopher Hill of Faire in Raleigh's Cameron Village, did just that.
They created six course using the night's featured ingredient, chicken eggs, and a surprise addition, the sunchoke, in each.
Hill said before the noon hour reveal, he didn't realize that sunchokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes) were a North Carolina product.
As they waited for their entrees, guests treated themselves to the fresh bread provided by La Farm, including decadent white chocolate baguettes, and cocktails made with TOPO vodka and beers on tap from Lonerider Brewing Company.
This week's two semifinals were shifted back a week due to snow. The final will pit winners from Monday and Tuesday night battles on March 9.
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: Poplar Ridge Farms Sunchoke-Sweet Potato Steam Bun, Spicy Braised Octopus, Heritage Farms Cheshire Pork Belly, Sunchoke-Collard Kimchi, Anaheim Pepper Purée, Sunchoke-Carrot Hoisin (Chef Chris Hill) Score: 21.846
As soon as the description was posted on big screens, squeamish diners shrunk away from this ambitious dish.
"I don't think I can do octopus," one said, and I saw several plates returned to the kitchen untouched. An inauspicious start for Hill's team.
Course 2: Roasted Veal Medallions, Black Truffle NC Egg Hollandaise, Poplar Ridge Farms Sunchoke-Bacon Homemade Mac & Cheese, Rainbow Chard, Perry Lowe Orchard Apples, Sunchokes (Chef Ryan Conklin) Score: 29.495
"Mac and cheese, I can do," that same (and by now hungry) diner said, digging into a dish that oozed comfort food.
In contrast to Course 1, which featured a variety of challenges but no single theme, this one was of a piece. All the flavors blended in one warm and rich tone.
After the meal, Conklin said he and his team wanted to do a mac and cheese dish, but had to make the paste themselves.
"You practice different things," he said, "but then you're stuck with what's on the truck."
Course 3: Poplar Ridge Farms Sunchoke-Black Garlic Glazed Certified Angus Beef® Brand Bistro Steak, Goat Lady Dairy Goat Cheese-Bacon-Caramelized Onion NC Egg Tortellini, Black Truffle Lacinato Kale, Sunchoke, Veal Glace Cream (Chef Chris Hill) Score: 25.640
Angus beef has played a major role in the Competition Dining Series and Monday did not disappoint, although at least one diner had to ask for her almost-rare steak to be cooked up a bit more.
Course 4: Rack of Lamb, Poplar Ridge Farms Sunchoke-Potato-NC Egg Puff, Tomato-Shiitake Jam, Lacinato Kale Salsa Verde (Chef Ryan Conklin) Score: 23.942
By this course, many meat-satiated diners left a bit of lamb on the plate, and I heard from diners who said this, too, was served a touch more rare than they would have liked.
Course 5: Coffee-Chocolate Incredible NC Egg Cake, Burnt Italian Meringue, Poplar Ridge Farms Sunchoke Caramel, Cabernet Fluid Gel, Sunchoke Graham Cracker Butter Cookie (Chef Chris Hill) Score: 25.917
It was clear that this battle would be decided by dessert, and the first offering included all the right notes: coffee, chocolate, caramel.
The burnt meringue, served to dozens of diners at the right texture and tone, was an impressive feat.
Competition Dining host Jimmy Crippen described this one as "that caramel you want to rub all over yourself," and some of my friends at Table 9 suggested that the sauce alone with La Farm's baguette would have made a winning dish.
Course 6: Poplar Ridge Farms Sunchoke & Sweet Potato Beignet, Milk Chocolate Glacé, Apple Cider-NC Egg Sabayon, Candied Pistachio Crumbs, Salted Caramel (Chef Ryan Conklin) Score: 30.983
"I guess I liked it, because I scarfed it," said one diner, looking around in surprise.
"It was great. It would be more great if I wasn't so full," added another.
With its dense beignet and ice cream-like glace, this dish earned the top score of the night for many.
As the scores were posted, it became clear that the chance Faire took in Course 1 would be costly and that Rex's Conklin has a hit in the mac and cheese combo.
So it would come down to dessert. Both dishes scored well, but the creativity in Conklin's combo put him over the top.
"We took it ot the last minute tonight," he said. "We rolled hard all day and were aggressive."
Hill described the day as "an out-of-body experience from 4:30 to 7:10 p.m."
Conklin was happy with the reception his food received and with the chance, next week, to compete in the Finals.
"I just wanted to make the people happy," he said.
Conklin will face the winner of Tuesday night's dinner on Monday, March 9, in the finale.