Raleigh, N.C. — When Tuesday’s secret ingredient in the Got to Be NC Competition Dining challenge was divulged, Chef Ben Adams of Durham’s Piedmont went back to childhood memories.
"Milk was my favorite thing to drink growing up,” Adams said, “You get a kind of terroir, you get the grasses.”
Competition Dining founder and host Jimmy Crippen said it had been a long time since his
cooking series had featured milk as the secret ingredient, so it was quite a surprise when Ran-Lew Dairy milk was revealed.
Chef Adams’ challenger on Tuesday was Chef Chelsi Hogue, of Ed’s Southern in Goldsboro.
The only female chef in the Triangle challenge this year, Hogue came to the event largely
unknown by Triangle heavy crowd. Hogue is a Goldsboro native who previously cooked in the
Asheville area. Crippen described her restaurant as being “days old.”
Regardless, Hogue, wearing a cap emblazoned with a hog and the North Carolina flag, brought her confident, calm demeanor and commitment to nouveau Southern cuisine to Raleigh.
The true star of the evening, however, was the secret ingredient: RanLewis Dairy milk. Located in Alamance County’s Eli Whitney community, RanLewis Dairy produces extraordinary milk, featuring a significantly higher butterfat content than the usual storebought carton. Speaking prior to the first course, owner operator Randy Lewis showed a passion for putting flavorful milk on the table.
“No homogenization, no standardization,” Lewis preached before the first course, “This is milk as the good Lord intended it.”
On its own, Lewis’ milk is a pure, rich experience that would feel wasted if poured over cold
cereal. With chocolate syrup added, it rivals even the most luxurious desserts.
Before the food arrived, diners quickly emptied baskets of La Farm Bakery bread. The signature cocktail for the evening, a White Russian made with RanLewis Dairy chocolate milk and TOPO distillery spirits, should singlehandedly double the amount of chocolate milk consumed by adults. The local beer for the event was from White Street Brewing, who make a scotch ale that stood up well to the evening’s creamy fare.
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: PanSeared Scallop, Aromatic & Spice Infused Ran-Lew Dairy Cream Top Milk Broth, Creamed Parsnip, Pinot Noir Plumped Cherries, Crushed Cashews, Fried Leeks (Hogue) Score: 28.664
It is always a pleasure to see a perfectly cooked, saucer-sized scallop. The fried leeks felt like a chewy distraction, but the sweet, mild scallop and the creamy broth, with what seemed liked southeast Asian spices, were balanced by the tangy, Pinot-plumped cherries.
Course 2: Anchovy, Little G Farms Bibb Lettuce Purée, Caper Berry, Almond, Crispy Parsnip, Ran-Lew Dairy WheyCucumber Vinaigrette (Adams) Score: 23.575
Not all diners at the table were anchovy fans, but Adams used a milk bath to pull the fishier notes out of course two, making converts of a few. However, it was impossible to detect the secret ingredient in the dish, which used milk more as a tool than as the star.
Course 3: Pan-Roasted Joyce Farms Naked Chicken Breast, Chili Fingerling Potato Shiitake Mushroom Hash, Browned Johnston County Mangalitsa Ham, Ran-Lew Dairy Cream Top Milk Gravy, Smoked Tomato Butter, Basil Pesto (Hogue) Score: 25.213
Course three was not without its faults: the chicken bordered on dry, while the hash only added to the perception that the dish was far too heavy and unbalanced. But the milk gravy had diners thinking back to childhood, and the chunk of smoked tomato butter was a novel addition. And as always, the supremely salty Mangalitsa ham will never not make diners swoon.
Course 4: Ran-Lew Dairy Cream Top MilkBraised Heritage Farms Cheshire Pork Curry, Scott Farms Fingerling Sweet Potatoes, Black Garlic, Herbs, Jasmine Rice (Adams) Score: 24.789
The creamy foam in course four was a fun component, but the true star of the dish was the immaculately cooked sweet potato. Impressively tender, yet far from mushy, it would have been a worthy entrant in Competition Dining: Battle Sweet Potato. However, the combination of braised pork, black garlic, and the foamy broth created an oily aroma that had many diners wary when the plates appeared.
Course 5: RanLew Dairy Cream Top Ricotta, Blood Orange, Pomegranate Seed, Fennel, Black Currant Purée (Adams) Score: 27.395
For the pro judges, Adams’ ricotta was the star of the night. Eric Cross, operations manager of Raleigh restaurants Coquette, Chow, and Vivace, thought course five was both the most innovative use of the secret ingredient and the dish that conveyed its true flavor best.
“The ricotta utilized the milk so well. It transformed it into something different, but it was also the best delivery of true milk flavor,” Cross said, “You can taste the grass the cows were eating.”
The accompaniments for course five were just as revelatory. It seemed as if Adams had replaced each element of an ice cream sundae: black currant purée for chocolate sauce,
pomegranate seeds for nuts, blood orange sections for cherries.
Regarding the ricotta, Adams said, “I had done nothing approaching that before.” The chef said he’s considering adding a similar dish to his menu in the future.
Course 6: Ran-Lew Dairy Cream Top Milk and Yeast Beignet, Spiced Sugar, Apple Butter Coconut Chantilly Cream, Chocolate Milk & Honey Sauce (Hogue) Score: 27.081
“We thought it would be hectic, but everything was so chill and laid back for the most part. But then it hit the fan. We were sitting pretty with no problems, until all of a sudden we weren’t.”
When Hogue says “it hit the fan,” she’s talking about dessert. Her first two dishes came together with ease, giving her a comfortable cushion, but her beignets caused trouble.
Measuring out the dough in the kitchen, her team had just enough to make the sugar-laden doughnuts for all diners. But then a handful fell apart in the deep fryer, meaning some diners never got a sixth course, and some diners received beignets that with overdone exteriors and undercooked centers.
According to Eric Cross, “Dish six missed a huge opportunity. I know there is milk in the beignet, but it could have used the cream better.”
Back in the kitchen, Hogue had to wonder: did her dessert troubles doom her? She would find
“It’s surreal,” Hogue said as a line of diners formed to have their photo taken with her, “I really wanted this first one bad.”
Hogue spoke of having a chip on her shoulder, being a relative unknown from Goldsboro, working in Goldsboro, at a restaurant that didn’t exist a year ago.
“I knew people wouldn’t have much of an idea of me,” Hogue said, “I’m an outsider.”
Later, Crippen spoke highly of Adams, calling his dishes “creative” and “gutsy,” especially for his use of anchovies. But Crippen was obviously pleased that the chef he took a chance on delivered in the end.
“I’m always excited to promote a new restaurant,” Crippen said, “and Chelsi came in and showed she’s got some chops. It’s not easy to bring out flavor in milk. She did it.”
After Tuesday evening, Triangle diners have no excuse to not know Chelsi Hogue and Ed’s Southern.
Hogue advances to the quarterfinals on February 16, where she will meet either Patrick Cowden of Tobacco Road or Curt Shelvey of Curt’s Cucina. Tickets are still available.