Raleigh, N.C. — Even after years of showcasing North Carolina ingredients, Got to Be NC Competition Dining still capable of springing a surprise on chefs and diners alike. When Competition Dining founder and host Jimmy Crippen announced Sunny Creek Farm sprouts as Monday night's secret ingredient, a murmur went through the dining room.
As Crippen ran through the myriad varieties of sprouts – from sprouted peas and legume sprouts to kale sprouts and broccoli sprouts – many diners exchanged concerned looks.
They weren’t alone. Later, when asked about the special ingredient, contestant Chef Teddy Diggs, from Chapel Hill’s Il Palio, said, “to be honest, I was very upset. Before the competition, we sat down and brainstormed all the possible secret ingredients, then marked some off until we had a list of 40. ‘Sprouts’ wasn’t on that list.”
Despite the surprise, Diggs would go on to perform quite admirably in his first Competition Dining challenge against competition veteran Chef Chris Hill of Raleigh’s Faire. Although Hill had competed four times prior (three of those times representing The Oxford), he was still looking for his first Competition Dining victory.
Diggs is relatively new to the Triangle restaurant scene, having only taken over in Chapel Hill a year ago after working for several years in kitchens in Martha’s Vineyard.
Before the sprout-laden food reached tables, diners dived into baskets of La Farm Bakery bread, which included white chocolate mini baguettes. The signature cocktails for the evening featured TOPO distillery spirits, and the local beer for the event was from White Street Brewing. Be on the lookout for their Kolsch-style Ale, a crisp, golden brew that is taking the beer world by storm at the moment.
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: “Risi e Bisi” - Parmesan-Carnaroli Rice Risotto, Sunny Creek Farms Sprouted Peas, Grana Padano Cheese and Roasted Mushrooms (Diggs) Score: 24.231
The sprouted peas provided a crunchy, fresh contrast to the creamy rice, and showed a willingness to fully incorporate the evening’s signature ingredient. However, pro judges docked points for the safe risotto dish, which seemed like a less than daring start.
Course 2: Tart Cherry-Smoked Bacon-Stuffed Joyce Farms Rabbit, Vanilla Scott Farms Sweet Potato Purée, Sunny Creek Farms Broccoli Sprouts, Duck Jus, Green Pea Sprout Vinaigrette (Hill) Score: 26.648
Hill’s rabbit course showcased complexity of flavor: the smoky meat, the fresh and bitter sprouts, and the decadent vanilla sweet potato purée covered all the angles. The sweet potato component could have been a worthy dessert on its own.
Course 3: Roasted Loin of Lamb, Cauliflower Purée, Lacinato Kale & Sunny Creek Farms Kale Sprouts, Black Truffle Lamb Jus (Diggs) Score: 27.818
Serge Falcoz-Vigne, executive chef at Raleigh’s 518 West and pro judge for the evening’s battle, called Digg’s lamb his favorite dish of the night, saying it was, “well-balanced, providing the most pleasure.”
One tablemate thought the lamb was too rare, but my cut was the simplest, most perfectly-cooked dish of the evening.
Course 4: Harissa-Marinated Certified Angus Beef® Brand Skirt Steak Medallion, Sunny Creek Farms Sprout & Fennel Chow Chow, Sprout Chorizo Israeli Couscous, Smoked Paprika Oil, Porcini Mushroom Broth (Hill) Score: 27.176
Though course four ostensibly featured steak, pro judge and La Farm Bakery mastermind Lionel Vatinet called it the most impressive incorporation of the secret ingredient all evening, saying the sprout and fennel chow-chow popped off the plate with freshness and acidity.
My table affirmed Vatinet’s assessment: the skirt steak was a chewy, disappointing use of protein after the wonderful rabbit and lamb, but the couscous and chow-chow saved course four.
Course 5: Goat Lady Dairy Goat Cheese & Sunny Creek Farms Sprouting Legume Doughnut, Poppy Seeds, Buttermilk Mousse, Crispy Clover Sprouts (Diggs) Score: 27.730
The crispy clover sprouts that topped the doughnut in course five seemed insignificant, almost an afterthought, but Chef Diggs’ doughnut was so transcendent, few seemed to notice. The tangy acidity from the buttermilk mousse and goat cheese made the sugar-sprinkled pastry taste far lighter than expected, leaving our table at a loss for awed. Among the regular Joe diners, it was easily the highest-rated dish.
Course 6: Cashew Corn Cake, Wheatgrass Curd, White Street Scotch Ale Fluid Gel, Blueberry Coulis, White Chocolate, Candied Sunny Creek Farms Crunchy Sprouts (Hill) Score: 27.383
A stark contrast to course five’s doughnut, the cashew corn cake played sprouts into almost every component of the dish. Most notable were the candied crunchy sprouts, a greener, brighter take on the dried, chocolate-coated edamame that hit shelves in the past few years. The sprout-heavy dish was the perfect end to an event that celebrated a North Carolina ingredient and the ingenuity of two local chefs.
Crippen said the neck-and-neck closeness in dish's score was something previously unseen in his years of Competition Dining. In the end, Chef Chris Hill of Faire claimed victory, edging out Chef Teddy Diggs of Il Palio by less than half a point, 27.071 to 26.597.
A relieved Hill shook hands with diners and supporters. Smiling, he said, “I was nervous, this being my fourth year. I was worried I’d never win one,” before saying he was excited to see the quarter-finals.
Afterward, Crippen praised Hill’s improvement over past years, saying Hill made, “a big step up in quality, from style, to finesse, to his sauces, it was a big step up.” Crippen noted that Hill’s strength in molecular gastronomy helped him, mentioning the scotch ale fluid gel in course six.
Despite coming up just a few tenths of a point short, Chef Teddy Diggs was not dismayed. “I would do nothing different,” Diggs said, “and I’ll definitely be back again.”
Hill advances to battle Chef Shane Ingram of Durham’s Four Square Restaurant on Feb. 10 in the quarter-finals. Tickets are still available.