Raleigh, N.C. — The new season of the Got To Be NC Competition Dining Series kicked off in downtown Raleigh Monday night, and it was a complete success. Diners, or should I say judges, started arriving to the event venue, 214 Martin Street, at 6 p.m., and everyone was seated by 6:45.
I sat beside a group of fellow foodies and nibbled on sourdough bread from LaFarm Bakery in Cary while we all waited for that evening's secret, mystery ingredients to be announced.
How it works
Battle 1: Olives & Tuna was the first of seven battles that will take place at the venue over the next two weeks. Each day, two local chefs - each armed with a team of other culinary experts - compete against one another to qualify for the final competition and $2,000.
The catch? Right before each battle, the chefs are given two secret locally-sourced ingredients that they must somehow incorporate into their courses that night. At the battle, they prepare the meals as the waiters serve them, and the diners rate each dish on their phones to determine the winning team.
Monday's battle required chefs to make use of olives from Olinda Olives & Olive Oil from Charleston, South Carolina and freshly-caught yellowfin tuna from North Carolina waters.
Competition Dining courses are served blindly, with diners uninformed of who made which dish until the end of the night. For each course, diners and local chefs grade the dish on aroma, presentation, creativity, taste and other factors. All scores are out of a possible 40 points.
The scores shown below are the final weighted scores for each course.
Each and every one of the six courses had to incorporate Olinda olives, fresh-caught yellowfin tuna or both - even the desserts! Each chef prepared an appetizer, an entree and a dessert. Tuna had to be in two of those dishes, olives or olive oil in three.
COURSE 1: Olinda Olive Oil-Infused Yellowfin Tuna, Local Canary Melon & Calabrian Chile Gazpacho with Carrot Salad, Quick Pickeled Local Watermelon Rind and Mint-Infused RanLew Dairy Crema
As a Competition Dining newbie, the first dish would have excited me no matter what. Sure enough, the vibrant colors (pink tuna, yellow melon) on the plate placed in front of me made the first course, yellowfin tuna with gazpacho, extremely photo-worthy. I had no idea that the rest of the courses would be as beautiful as the first, but they were.
Everyone at my table was delighted as we dug in to what turned out to get the lowest score of the evening. Despite its score, the tuna was perfectly prepared (and trust me, although I am a foodie amateur, my table mates knew their stuff) and the melon on top gave the dish a sweet, tart flavor. There was only a hint of mint in the dish, and it was the gazpacho that brought out the most flavor. The dish tasted light, cool and summery, but the evening was young.
COURSE 2: Tuna Puttanesca, Olinda Olive Queen Olive, Caper & Spicy Roasted Tomato Sauce, Clemson Blue Cheese Polenta, Oil-Cured Black Olive Tapenade, Jalapeno Crisp
The second course turned out to be not just my favorite item (favorite non-dessert item, that is) of the evening but everyone else's, too. This blue cheese polenta topped with tuna puttanesca received the highest score of the night, and for a good reason. The polenta - a light, fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth cheesy wonder - was one of the tastiest things I have eaten in my life. Seriously. And the tuna puttanesca was full of flavor with just a hint of spiciness.
The thing that really made this dish for me, though, were the jalapeno crisps - they were very similar to the French's fried onion crisps you can buy in the grocery store, but 100 times better.
COURSE 3: Olinda Olive Oil-Cured Black Olive-Encrusted Tuna, Queen Olive Grits, Local Corn, Okra & Field Pea Relish
By the time this dish came out, I was worried that I would be sick of tuna. After all, I had consumed two decent-sized portions of tuna (the Competition Dining courses are generous) by this point, and that's a lot for someone who just started eating sushi three years ago.
That was not the case. The yellowfin brought out in each dish was just so fresh that it didn't even taste like fish - it was just tender, delicious protein caught in North Carolina waters that made the perfect base for the chefs' artful experiments.
This tuna had a slight, pleasant sweetness to its crust, which is what really made the dish great. The grits were tasty too, and the field peas had an earthy flavor that brought an unexpected taste to the plate. It wasn't my favorite, but it was up there. Then again, everything I ate was.
COURSE 4: Duo of Yellowfin Tuna - Olinda Olive Oil Poached Tuna, Queen Olive Pesto beside Peppercorn-Seared Tuna Mignon, Peach & Sweet Vermouth Glace, Saffron Lentils, Local Romano Bean, Lima & Corn Saute
Course 4 was, in my opinion, the most beautiful dish of the evening. The duo of yellowfin tuna was "painted" with pesto and mildly sweet from the peach and vermouth glace. Apart from the tuna puttanesca, this was my favorite savory dish, and the other diners around me agreed.
I don't know a lot about preparing tuna, but several foodies at my table - some of which were chefs - clued me in on some inside information. "Poaching scares me," said one of my table mates. "It can kill a dish's flavor, and chefs need to compensate." My other table mates agreed that the dish "could be missing something" but that it was delicious nonetheless.
COURSE 5: Olinda Olive Oil & Pecan Cardamon Cake, Blackwelder Farms Rosemary Buttercream, Olive Oil Lemon Ice Cream, Maple Candied Pecans, Black Olive Salted Caramel
I was obviously full at this point, but I'm a girl who can always make room for dessert. "Dessert can make or break the competition," I overheard someone say. Even as a dining battle newbie, I knew the dessert was indeed a challenge that showed a chef's talent. I mean, have you ever made ice cream with olive oil?
One chef did for this course, and it was amazing. This dessert was, by far, my favorite course of the night, and I couldn't believe that the cake - and ice cream - I was eating was loaded with olives and olive oil. Yep, the sweet, cardamon cake had just a hint of bitter flavor from the olives, but it was amazing (think along the lines of salty/sweet). I am not sure how to prepare black olive salted caramel, but the sauce drizzled over the entire dessert was one its best qualities.
Eclectic flavors of ice cream (lavender and even charcoal) are slowly but surely becoming "a thing" these days, but this was my first time trying anything like them. I understood as I took a bite of my ice cream, which was ice-cold and so smooth, that non-sweet varieties like this play with your taste buds, especially if paired with a sweet dessert.
The takeaway from this dish? Ice cream doesn't have to be sweet to be amazing.
COURSE 6: Verjus Blanc Chess Tart, Olinda Olive Cured Black Olive Crust, Roasted Pineapple-Canary Melon-Passion Fruit Compote, Local Blueberries, Blackwelder Farms Lemon Verbena
Okay, by the last course, I was getting a little sleepy from a long day (that's what happens when you wake up at 4 a.m.). I perked up, though, when a waiter placed in front of me another beautiful plate - swirls of passion fruit compote surrounded a crispy olive-cured wafer that paired wonderfully with fruit. It was a treat, for sure, but the first dessert prevailed.
Voting in the battles is incredibly easy, and everyone in the room had submitted their ballot 10 minutes after the meal. The chefs finally came out from their busy kitchens to a sea of applause, and we found out who made each dish as the scores went live on screen.
The winner of the first battle (with a score of 30.45) was a group of chefs representing Fuquay-Varina's Hook & Cleaver Market on Broad, a fresh meat and seafood market. They made the top-rated tuna puttanesca dish along with the tuna duo.
The runners up (who weren't far behind at 28.866!) were a group of chefs from Southern Pines representing Rhett's Restaurant, Personal Chef and Catering. They had made my favorite dessert - the cake and ice cream - but it just wasn't enough to beat the other team's puttanesca.
The end of the battle was a proud moment for both sets of chefs, and diners around the room congratulated them, thanked them for the meal and shook hands. It's really a beautiful thing, Competition Dining, and it's much more than a six course meal. It's a celebration of eating locally and sustainably, and it's a way to celebrate and recognize the talented chefs in our area.
I even learned from the host of the battle that the extra food in the kitchen is brought to nearby homeless shelters after the event - something I wish restaurants did more often.
Upcoming Raleigh battles
Battle 2 continues Tuesday with a whole new set of chefs and secret ingredients, but you review all the battles left in the Raleigh series and make your reservation online.