Raleigh, N.C. — Shane Ingram was one of the chefs to compete in the first Got to Be NC Competition Dining "Fire in the Triangle" That experience paid off against a competition rookie on Wednesday night.
Not only did Ingram, the head chef at Durham’s Four Square restaurant, participate in the first tournament, back in 2012, he was a competitor on the very first night. Ingram won on premiere night, beating the Twisted Fork before getting nosed out by Il Palio in the quarterfinals a month later.
“The experience really helped,” Ingram said after sending Ben Strange of New Bern’s Aperitivo on a two-hour trip home.
“It was hard,” Strange said afterward. “Very challenging, but I enjoyed myself.”
Strange was looking to showcase his two-month old restaurant, which shares a location with Lawson’s Landing Riverwalk Cafe. The casual, family-style restaurant transforms into an elegant Italian dining experience each night.
He seemed to have accomplished his mission. The public responded to his three dishes. His combined “average Joe score” was 27.46 (out of a possible 40), just over a point behind Ingram’s 28.77.
Nearly all of Ingram’s margin of victory came from the three professional judges. He won a lopsided 30.56 to 19.67 decision on the pros’ scorecards.
The chefs were given a break with the secret ingredient. A night after competitors had to incorporate Shiitake mushrooms into each dish, Ingram and Strange were asked to use sweet potatoes from Benson’s Scott Farms.
“North Carolina’s got the coast and the mountains. You can’t even guess what the secret ingredient is going to be,” Ingram said. “I was very happy with sweet potatoes.”
Sweet potatoes go well in soups, entrees and desserts, which meant the chefs didn’t have to spend much prep time thinking of ways to incorporate the secret ingredient. That allowed them to focus on the cooking, which helped Ingram score with the professional judges.
“You could just tell that, in his dishes, he tried more complicated and advanced techniques,” said one of the judges, Chef Terri Hutter of the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. Hutter was able to accurately identify which dishes were from the pan of Ingram and which were Strange’s.
For the third straight night, the featured drinks for the evening came from Top of the Hill in Chapel Hill. There was a choice of two beers – Topo’s Old Well White and their Rams Head IPA - and three signature cocktails using spirits from the TOPO distillery.
Cary’s La Farm Bakery supplied the evening’s bread, which included a white chocolate baguette that set a high bar for the chefs to clear. At the end of the night, each diner received a voucher for a free La Farm white chocolate baguette as a parting gift.
The rules of Competition Dining requires the dishes to be served blindly, with no one aware of which chef prepared each of the six courses. In fact, when Competition Dining’s Heidi Billotto did a live video report from the kitchen, the cameras very carefully avoided showing whose hands were plating the food.
In each round and overall, diners (the Joes) and professional judges (the Pros) grade the dish on eight categories, including aroma, presentation, flavor, use of the secret ingredient, creativity and other factors. The score shown is the final weighed score for each dish. Here’s a course-by-course rundown of the night’s menu:
Course 1: Scott Farms Sweet Potato & Johnston County Mangalitsa Ham Soup, Royal Red Shrimp & Avocado Salad, Quince Pickled Mustard Seeds (Ingram) Score: 26.94
The salad and shrimp were served atop the soup, making for a nice presentation and unique blend of flavors. Both Joes (26.62) and Pros (27.67) enjoyed this dish. In what would become a recurring theme in Ingram’s courses, the dish was prepared with a “more is better” attitude. There was so much going on that each bite could have come from a different dish altogether.
Course 2: Scott Farms Sweet Potato & Fennel Little River Crab Cake with Sweet Potato and Lusty Monk Altar Boy Honey Mustard Remoulade, Arugula Salad, Bourbon-Apple (Strange) Score: 22.61
This dish established the recurring theme for Strange’s work. While the Joes responded to the crab cake, scoring it a 25.73, the Pros hammered it, giving it the lowest score of the night: 15.33.
While the sweet potato was a main ingredient, its taste was overwhelmed by the crab, mustard remoulade and the strong salad. While it was a tasty dish, it didn’t feature the sweet potato taste, which likely explains the difference of opinion from the two categories of voters.
Course 3: Slow-Roasted Lamb Loin, Foie Gras, Fuji Apple, Scott Farms Sweet Potato Purée, Bing Cherry Sweet Potato Glaze (Ingram) Score: 29.75.
Ingram’s main course elicited a murmur of approval from the crowd as it was unveiled and served. The cherry and sweet potato glaze was flavorful without overwhelming the meat. The foie gras, apple and sweet potato puree, as well as the sweet potato chips that seemed to be added as an afterthought were another example of Ingram overloading his dishes to include as many of his good ideas as he could. The Pros (31.67) liked this dish even more than the Joes (28.93).
Course 4: Scott Farms Sweet Potato-Encrusted & Seared Maple Leaf Farms Duck Breast, Sweet Potato Cheddar & Beet Napoleon, Green Beans & Ram’s Head IPA Demi (Strange) Score: 21.78
This was the lowest scoring Joe dish of the evening at 23.97. The Pros didn’t give it a vote of approval either, at 16.67.
The Napoleon was a solid side dish, but the inclusion of beets divided the dining room. As one diner at my table said, “the green beans were the best part.” The duck was inconsistently cooked and, again, buried the sweet potato that was supposed to be a featured part of the dish. “It was supposed to be encrusted,’ said Hutter. “I didn’t see it.”
Course 5: Scott Farms Sweet Potato Buttermilk Custard, Maple Anglaise, Black Pepper Marshmallow, Marcona Almond Brittle, Pomegranate Whip (Ingram) Score: 31.20
Ingram’s quest to use every ingredient in Competition Dining’s mobile pantry continued with his dessert course. The custard put the sweet potato on a pedestal, earning him his highest Joe (30.71) and Pro (32.33) scores of the night. If, for some reason, the custard didn’t do it for you, the marshamallow, brittle and whip gave you a dessert sampler to choose from.
Course 6: Scott Farms Sweet Potato, Bacon, Cheddar & Apple Tart with Goat Lady Dairy Goat Cheese Foams (Strange) Score: 31.02
Everyone loves dessert, and the wintery tart gave diners a warm nightcap for their evening and Strange his highest scores of the evening. The 32.74 Joe score was the highest any dish earned from any judge. The Pros gave it a 27.00, more than 10 points higher than any of Strange’s other courses earned from them.
Ingram made a triumphant return to the tournament with a four-point win over Strange. He could even a score in the next round, as Ingram will take on the winner of the Jan. 26 showdown between Faire and Il Palio. Il Palio knocked Ingram out of the 2012 Fire. That quarterfinal matchup will take place on Feb. 10. Tickets are still available.