Durham, N.C. — Both Team Eggheads and Team Garnish Nation came into Tuesday’s Got To Be NC Competition Dining series with something to prove.
For Team Eggheads, featuring Scott Schabot, Keith Calise, and Tad Balio from Another Broken Egg Cafe in Durham, it was the notion that their chain restaurant couldn’t create inspiring food like the Triangle’s more talked about independent restaurants.
And for Team Garnish Nation’s chefs from Robinson Ferry in Warrenton, it was the idea that their remote location (more than an hour north of Durham) meant they weren’t on the forefront of what’s happening in North Carolina cuisine. For chefs Michael Ring, A.J. Garrelts and David Rose - that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Before teams could dispel those perceptions, they would need to master two secret ingredients - Milk from Ran-Lew Dairy in Alamance County and an assortment of products from Cloister Honey in Charlotte.
In addition to milk and honey, the chefs would be forced to use a list of pantry ingredients picked by host and Competition Dining founder Jimmy Crippen designed to challenge and frustrate. Battle milk and honey was on.
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: Porcini Smoked Paprika Seared Scallop, Grilled Cucumbers, Wasabi Ran-Lew Dairy Buttermilk Ranch Slaw, Basil, Lime, Cloister Ghost Pepper Honey Vinaigrette (Garnish Nation) - Score: 30.325
With the first course, diners quickly learned that having milk and honey as secret ingredients would not mean a night of mellow flavors. The paprika-crusted scallop was a bold mix of smoky exterior and sweet, briny interior, pairing nicely with the fresh, crisp slaw.
The difficult ingredient restrictions dreamed up by Crippen hit home right away when Team Garnish Nation began mapping out their first course. “We wanted to use the lime to create a ponzu sauce, but figuring out how to bring milk into an Asian sauce was a challenge,” Ring said. Still, that was an easier fix than when Team Garnish Nation realized they would have to engineer a ranch dressing seasoning from scratch. That they pulled it all together for a strong score is impressive.
COURSE 2: Benton’s Bacon Pork Belly, Grilled Marinated Local Asparagus, Cured Egg, Ran-Lew Dairy Buttermilk, Cloister Ghost Pepper and Arbol Chile Honey “Hollandaise” (Eggheads) - Score: 29.220
Team Eggheads let the smoky, tender pork belly shine in this dish, confident that the Benton’s product deserved a starring role. But while they perfected the pork, the grilled asparagus under-whelmed, tasting entirely of ghost pepper and arbol chile. At times on Tuesday, each team struggled to use the numerous capsaicin-laden ingredients they were required to incorporate. For Team Eggheads, that misstep happened when they underestimated the heat in the Cloister Honey blends.
COURSE 3: Seared Duck Breast, Cloister Bourbon Honey Glaze, Truffle Ran-Lew Dairy Risotto, Pickled Apple, Fried Goat Lady Dairy Goat Cheese Croutons (Garnish Nation) - Score: 31.79
From top to bottom, Course 3 was the dish of the night. The truffle risotto was unimaginably creamy, while the duck breast was sliced thin and seared to the exact point of perfection. Those heavy, rich components were balanced out by the bright flavors of pickled apples and a disc of breaded, flash fried goat cheese that were far from being garnish afterthoughts. After the event, Team Garnish Nation member A.J. Garrelts detailed an extensive list of ingredients he used just to pickle the apples, including tumeric, lavender, and brown sugar.
COURSE 4: Ran-Lew Dairy Marinated Veal Tenderloin, Truffled Pink Peppercorn Crust, Broccolini, Roasted Tomato Salad, Lyon Farms Strawberry Cloister Bourbon Honey Miso Masters Glaze (Eggheads) - Score: 28.933
After the beauty of Garnish Nation’s Course 3, Team Eggheads had their work cut out for them on Course 4. While they couldn’t quite match scores, they did stay close. The roasted tomato salad had a deep, tangy flavor that was unique in Tuesday’s competition, and played well with the rare veal. Rounding it out was the umami-sweet combo of the honey miso glaze, which had diners dragging pieces of La Farm Bakery baguettes around their plate after the tenderloin had vanished.
COURSE 5: Ran-Lew Dairy Buttermilk Nutella Cornbread, Rhubarb Calabrian Chile Jam, Cloister Wildflower Honey Lyon Farms Strawberries (Garnish Nation) - Score: 29.394
The final Garnish Nation course was technically sound, but it made a few small mistakes that had voters sending back less than stellar scores. First, the semi-sweet cornbread choice confused many diners who expected a traditional dessert. Second, but equally important, the calabrian chile jam was a sweat-inducing, far spicier than anything that appeared in any savory dish during the dinner. It had fantastic flavor, but would have fared better in a different application.
“We knew we were taking a risk,” chef Michael Ring said, “but we wanted to have some fun.” Once again, the extra ingredient requirements posed as much of a challenge for the competitors as the milk and honey did. “Chiles packed in oil,” Garrelts said, adding, “we had to use them.” But it would have taken a much sweeter and richer dessert to stand up to the heat.
COURSE 6: NC Sweet Potato Ran-Lew Buttermilk Cheesecake, Cloister Wildflower Honey Smoked Hickory Syrup, Toasted Meringue, Orange Brûlée (Eggheads) - Score: 34.015
If there’s one rule of being a Competition Dining chef, it’s to bring the sweetness on the dessert. As Course 5 showed, it’s no place to be overly delicate, but to deliver a dense, rich, and sugary final offering. That’s what Team Eggheads did on Tuesday, and the crowd went wild over it. The sweet potato cheesecake was a stout vehicle for the team’s small touches, each one bursting with distinct flavors. The brûléed orange tasted like an Old Fashioned, and the wildflower honey and smoked hickory syrup was a sippable cocktail on its own. The dish earned the night’s high score, a rare 34 points.
According to Eggheads chef Scott Schabot, their hit cheesecake almost ended in disaster. “It wasn’t supposed to be a sweet potato cheesecake at all. In my head, I envisioned a goat cheese cheesecake. But when they [Garnish Nation] chose goat cheese, we had to change our plan.”
Team Eggheads’ cheesecake troubles weren’t over there. Schabot continued, saying, “At the last minute, we had to change our plan for the cheesecake. It was setting up, but it wasn’t coming out of the pan. But we knew that the flavors were right, and if we could just get presentation, we’d be there.” Team Eggheads got the presentation, and the diners agreed on their flavors. But would it be enough to make up for Team Eggheads’ deficit they had on their previous dishes?
Warrenton’s Team Garnish built a big lead on the strength of their appetizers and entrees, but Durham’s Team Eggheads erased it with their massive dessert score. Team Eggheads won by just two-tenths of a point, 30.702 to 30.489.
The miniscule difference sent a shock through the crowd, but was indicative of the high quality of cooking on display all evening.
Both teams pointed out that they accomplished their main goals on Tuesday. Schabot showed that even though Another Broken Egg Cafe is part of a chain of restaurants, his team can create inventive, high quality dishes as well as the independents can.
On the other side of the kitchen, Ring was proud of how Team Garnish Nation spoke for their small town. “Not only did we prove we can compete on the same level as Durham chefs, we represented Warrenton as a day trip destination. That’s good for all the small businesses in Warrenton.”
Similarly, both groups of competitors spoke of how enjoyable the day was. “Plating our creations was the most fun,” Ring said, adding, “working tightly with the other chefs, and seeing all our components turned into beautiful dishes.”
An elated Schabot echoed the Team Garnish Nation leader, but his mind was already turning to his next battle, on Thursday night.
“I plan to get some sleep,” Schabot said, “but I’m already thinking about what I can do better. I feel like I learned so much today about time management, about understanding what the diners expect."
Schabot and Team Eggheads will need to put those lessons to use on Thursday against Curt Shelvey and Team Curt’s Cucina. The Southern Pines chef, a Competition Dining veteran, was in attendance on Tuesday, scoping out his competition and enjoying a night off from the restaurant.
Shelvey had been contemplating the new Competition Dining ingredient restrictions since his Monday win. “You can’t get too caught up in the gamesmanship of trying to take key ingredients away from the other team,” Shelvey said, “but there definitely is more strategy involved now.”
Team Eggheads and Team Curt’s Cucina will face off at Bay 7 in the American Tobacco Campus on April 21 in the Competition Dining Durham finale. 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.