Raleigh, N.C. — For the first time in Got to Be NC Competition Dining history, a competing chef hailed not from a restaurant but from a hospital.
Tuesday night's match-up saw Top of the Hill's Chef Trey Cleveland battling against Rex Healthcare Chef Ryan Conklin. A well-established restaurant versus a hospital may seem like a no-contest - but Conklin and Rex Healthcare are breaking down the stereotypes of typical hospital food.
Conklin, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., used to work at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan, serving up food for celebrities like Oprah. He also worked as a chef in Limerick, Ireland. Representing Rex, he has won gold and silver medals in healthcare food competitions. Competition Dining is the first time the Rex team has competed against restaurant chefs.
A few weeks ago, Conklin told me that he was ready to show that his team could match knives with the best of them. And he wasn't lying. His team's dishes scored high - we're talking two-time Fire in the Triangle champion Dean Thompson-high - last night!
But before we chat about the dishes, you probably need to know the secret ingredient! Both chefs were thrown a curveball when they found out that they had Fogwood Foods Shiitake Power and dried Shiitake mushrooms.
The mushrooms had to be featured in each chef's three dishes, which had a lot of diners waiting for mushroom ice cream for dessert.
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. I loved the Spicy Cucumber Lemonade. Look for their cocktails at all of the Triangle Competition Dining dinners.
Top of the Hill and Rex each had a great turnout at the meal. They each two tables filled with supporters. One couple at another table sat next to Conklin when he judged competition dining last year. They told him that if he competed this year, they would buy tickets.
The dinner's focus on technology in the kitchen is slowing growing with Competition Dining's Heidi Billotto giving diners live looks from the kitchen. Last night, she showed us how to make a Hail Mary Bloody Mary and then took us into the pantry to see what ingredients the chefs had to choose from when creating their dishes.
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: Fogwood Food Shiitake & Lusty Monk Original Sin Mustard-Crusted Veal Loin, Ram’s Head IPA-Soaked Mushroom Ragout, Looking Glass Creamery “Chocolate Lab” Logan Turnpike Stoneground Yellow Grits, Asparagus & Little River Crab Salad with Mushroom-Citrus Vinaigrette, Fried Horseradish Chip (Conklin) Score: 30.976
The mushroom was really showcased nicely in this dish. The sauce and the grits had diners talking for the rest of the meal!
Course 2: Seared Certified Angus Beef® Brand Filet of Ribeye with Fogwood Food Dried Shiitake Mushroom, Pepsi and Pomegranate Molasses Reduction, Little G Farms Bibb Lettuce with Orange White Balsamic Vinaigrette (Cleveland) Score: 18.961
This dish was a let-down. While the beef and molasses reduction were delicious, the mushroom seemed to get lost. The vinaigrette was also a highlight, but overall diners felt the first dish was the one to beat, until they got to course 3!
Course 3: Fogwood Food Shiitake Mushroom Salted Certified Angus Beef® Brand Petit Teres Filet, Nueske’s Bacon & Brussels Sprouts, Colcannon Potatoes, Butternut Squash Ketchup, Pickled Mushrooms, Onion Jam (Conklin) Score: 32.911.
The highest scoring dish of the night featured butternut squash ketchup and a perfectly cooked filet.
Coquette chef Beth Littljohn, a pro judge for the evening, liked the dish's acidity and balance.
Course 4: Fogwood Food Shiitake Mushroom Dusted Maple Leaf Farms Duck Breast Medallions, Roasted Vegetables, Fried Crawfish and Lusty Monk Burn in Hell Chipotle Mustard Butter Sauce (Cleveland) Score: 25.555
When this dish came out, Heather Conklin said immediately that she knew it wasn't from her husband. "He wouldn't fry something," she said.
The crunch of the crawfish and the mustard butter sauce were great accompaniments. And the duck was tender and full of flavor. It was a favorite of chef Anthony Zanini, a member of the two-time Fire in the Triangle championship team at Flights in North Hills, who served as a pro judge for the evening.
Course 5: Leonardi Grand Reserve Gorgonzola Cheesecake with Fogwood Food Shiitake Brûlée, Lemon-Walnut Biscotti, Shiitake Mushroom Extract, Shiitake Tea, Dried Cherry Coulis (Conklin) Score: 26.288
The Shiitake brulee was a great use of the mushrooms. It really gave you just a taste of the mushroom while complimenting the cheesecake. The biscotti also had diners talking. Overall this was a strong dessert, especially for one containing mushrooms.
Course 6: Fogwood Food Shiitake Mushroom Butter Pecan Ice Cream with Candied Shiitakes, Citrus, Almonds, Pistachio, Dried Cherries (Cleveland) Score: 30.729
It took awhile for this dessert to come out and when it did, the mushroom ice cream just tasted like butter pecan. A really, really good butter pecan ice cream, but the mushrooms were virtually non-existent. The dessert was tasty and that is probably why it scored 30 points from both pros and joes.
Competition Dining founder and host Jimmy Crippen noted that the kitchen was quiet and calm all afternoon. Neither chef seemed to panic. They just got to work and produced great food.
Team TOPO did have an accident in the kitchen. Head catering chef Matt Butler burned his foot while carrying some scalding sauce. He wrapped his foot up and continued cooking.
In the end, Conklin defeated Cleveland by about 5 percentage points. With such high scores, many are talking about Conklin and Rex being the "dark horse" to win this year's Competition Dining title.
Rex will take on Midtown Grille on Feb. 9 in the quarter-finals. Tickets are still available.