Raleigh, N.C. — The Chefs of Summer are back a little early in 2015. The Got To Be NC Competition Dining series is underway, and if the first round is any indication, the clashes in the kitchen could be some of the closest matches we've seen yet.
Before we delve into the event itself, though, there are a few changes that Competition Dining devotees need to know this year. The location is the same: 1705 Prime on Millbrook Road in Raleigh. The dinners begin a little earlier than in years past - pre-show introductions started at 6:45pm last night. A couple at my table nearly missed the first course because they were counting on last year's slightly later start, so plan your evening accordingly. The format remains the same, with professional judges and diners grading each course on eight criteria.
Also this year, you catch a glimpse of what's going on inside the kitchen. We saw some of this during last year's finals. Blogger Heidi Billotto is at the bar and in the kitchen to give you a behind the scenes look at the challenge behind your meal. “This is something people have asked for,” Competition Dining founder and host Jimmy Crippen said. “Technology makes it possible, we just need to tread lightly so we don't give away any secrets or identities while we do this.”
There's a new boss in the kitchen. Chef Ref Bobby Zimmerman has joined the team. Zimmerman said he was impressed with the first night's event and how smoothly things went during the battle. That could be in part because the chefs have apprentices this year. The Chef's Academy is providing interns to offer extra hands in the hustle and bustle of Competition Dining.
A number of patrons also wanted to know why the schedule moved to January. Crippen said his main motivation was the food itself. “We work with North Carolina food, and a lot of what we use is seasonal,” he said. “After years of working with summer ingredients, by moving to January, we're challenging the chefs with new offerings.” Crippen has adjusted the schedules for events in Charlotte and the Triad to shake up those chefs as well.
Nothing seemed to shake the chefs in the kitchen last night. Chef Gerry Fong, 2012 winner of Fire on the Dock in Wilmington, squared off against Midtown Grill's new executive chef Benjamin Harris. Their secret ingredient came to us from a few miles down the road – Johnston County Hams Mangalitsa Ham, a salt and sugar cured ham with a taste profile many diners compared to Prosciutto.
The featured drinks for the evening came from Top of the Hill in Chapel Hill. They brought two beers – their Old Well White and their Rams Head IPA - and three signature cocktails using spirits from the TOPO distillery.
The meals started coming out of the kitchen a little after 7. The first two courses used very similar ingredients in very different ways. Both were centered on scallops to cut the salt of the ham, but that's about where the similarities ended.
The first course came from Midtowne Grill's Chef Benjamin Harris. He pan-roasted scallops with grits, saffron, basil, chili, topping it all with slices of Mangalitsa ham that almost looked like bacon. The plating was beautiful in its simplicity, and the placement of the ham rather than incorporation lent itself to a “choose your own taste adventure” approach to the dish. Diners could choose how much salt (the ham) they wanted with the silky scallop. It was a much appreciated introduction to the ingredient.
The second course was created by Chef Gerry Fong, and incorporated the same ingredients. Fong seared his sea scallops in lavender and thyme and served it with a cold rice noodle salad and a blend of sauteed parsnips and ham over a currant-cranberry compote. The ham was still visible and the taste was present. However, the salt was slightly overwhelming in this dish for my tastes.
When a ham is the featured ingredient, one might expect it to be front and center in the entree courses. However, when the third and fourth courses came out, the ham was quite hard to find. In fact, it wasn't even named in the description Chef Harris submitted for Course 3: Confit of Heritage Farms Cheshire Pork Belly, Looking Glass Creamery “Chocolate Lab” Rustic Porridge, Butternut, Red Onion Jam, Redeye Gravy. The pork belly was delicious and the sides as well. We learned when the scores were revealed that the Mangalitsa Ham was in the red eye gravy.
The ham also took a creative yet backseat role in Chef Fong's entree. He used it multiple times – crusting a ribeye, flavoring a goat cheese risotto, and flavoring his Brussels sprouts. A number of the diners I spoke with said this was their favorite course, but that the ham itself was reduced to a salt-flavor for them. Tim at Table 10 said, “Toward the end you taste a little spice, and I like the heat, but the ham is lost in the crusting.” One of the pro judges told me the goat cheese overpowered the ham completely in his risotto. I must admit, I didn't eat the meat on this one to weigh in – my serving was cold when it reached the table and I'm cautious about beef when it's cold.
As in many of these battles, it all came down to dessert. What we didn't know at the time, was just how close the scores were. Crippen announced at the end of the night that after four courses, the two chefs were only three one-hundredths of a point apart. The final course would decide the winner.
This season's rules state that the single ingredient of the night must be used in all three courses, meaning our sweets were about to have ham in them. We were slightly suspicious, but mostly quite curious how this would come to pass.
Course 5 was Chef Harris' dessert offering, titled simply, “Chocolate” with a description of milk chocolate custard, dark chocolate torte, Johnston County Mangalitsa Ham salted caramel, and “Fluff”. The flavor was amazing. Chef Harris brought out both the ham and the salt in the caramel, lending an extra depth to the custard pot. The dark chocolate torte cut some of the sweetness of the rest of the dish, and the handmade marshmallow fluff was once again off to the side where diners could decide how to incorporate it into their dishes.
For his dessert, Chef Fong incorporated the ham into a chocolate stout cake and into a pomegranate sorbet that took the place of an icing. Brilliant idea, and the sorbet was my favorite part of the plate. The vanilla chili and lime anglaise was also delicious, but some diners were put off by the candied beets on a dessert plate. I tried them, but decided to leave them on the plate and devour the rest of the offerings.
The scores were tabulated in no time, and the battle was a close one. Midtown Grill's Chef Benjamin Harris won by only three-tenths of a point. He will be back in the kitchen of 1705 Prime on February 9th to take on the winner of tonight's battle between Top of the Hill and Rex Health.
As the restaurant started to clear out, I asked Crippen how he felt about the first night of a new run. “Things went quite well this evening,” he said. “I'm thrilled with our new chef ref, the new ingredients we can offer, and the chance to do this earlier in the year.” Crippen said South Carolina officials have also shown interest in bringing Competition Dining to their state, and he may use the latter part of 2015 to organize an event or two in that state.
Tickets are still available to some of the Triangle competition dining events. Check the Competition Dining website for details.