After Team Curt’s Cucina, from the eponymous restaurant in Southern Pines, won the April 18 Got To Be NC Competition Dining battle of bacon and eggs, and Team Eggheads, from Another Broken Egg Cafe in Durham, won the April 19 battle of milk and honey, it was reasonable for the two groups to expect another traditional pairing in the April 21 Durham finale, where the winner would receive $2,000 in cash and prizes and a chance to cook in October’s Battle of Champions.
Those expectations were completely shattered when host Jimmy Crippen revealed the night’s secret ingredients: fresh caught North Carolina swordfish and Bertie County blistered peanuts.
If that pairing was a challenge, it only became more difficult when the chefs were given their restrictive ingredients lists. A new feature in this, the 11th year of Competition Dining, the pantry draft that assigns foods like avocado, dragon fruit, ponzu sauce, umami powder, and rice wine vinegar to different teams brings an innovative, "Chopped" feel to the culinary creations. That was certainly true for battle swordfish and peanuts.
Competition Dining courses are served blindly, with diners uninformed of who made which dish until the end of the night. For each course, diners (the Joes) and local chefs (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 weighted score for the course.
COURSE 1: Fresh from NC Waters Swordfish Crudo, Thai Chili Bertie County Blistered Peanut Sauce, Avocado Mousse, Pickled Vegetables (Eggheads) - Score: 30.793
Swordfish sometimes has a bad reputation as an oily fish, which is why serving a raw medallion of it on the first course was a bold move. It was a decision Team Eggheads debated at first. When head chef Scott Schabot declared his intention to plate a sashimi-like cut of fish, his teammate Tad Balio had to ask, was this really a good idea?
It was a fabulous idea. The crudo showed how mild and pleasant the fish could be, and with the full-flavored peanut sauce it was a hit. The sauce showed Team Eggheads had learned from their first round of Competition Dining earlier in the week, where many of their dishes brought more chile heat than diners wanted. This sauce was warm, but far from overwhelming. As a result, the Joes loved it.
COURSE 2: Fresh from NC Waters Swordfish & Crab Ravioli, Curried Bertie County Blistered Peanut Sauce, Pickled Apple & Ginger, Basil Oil (Curt’s Cucina) - Score: 28.16
Team Curt’s Cucina countered with a beautiful, deeply curry-colored ravioli using crab meat and swordfish belly. But while it looked exquisite, the swordfish and peanut flavors felt too muted, unnoticeable beneath the crab and curry.
COURSE 3: Bertie County Blistered Peanut Crusted Fresh From NC Waters Swordfish, Saffron Basmati Rice, Goodnight Brothers Country Ham Tarragon Cream Sauce (Eggheads) - Score: 27.508
Using crushed peanuts to crust the fish was an obvious choice, and it worked well, but the most interesting component in course 3 was the Easter egg yellow cream broth flavored with ham and tarragon. Diners docked points for the chewy fried leeks, an ingredient that bested more than one team during the Durham week of Competition Dining.
COURSE 4: Cloister Lavender Honey Marinated Fresh From NC Waters Swordfish, Bertie County Blistered Peanut Ran-Lew Dairy Buttermilk Grits, Sautéed Asparagus, NC Sweet Potato Crisps, Charred Lemon Lavender Honey Sauce (Curt’s Cucina) - Score 30.346
As much as any dish from Competition Dining Durham, course 4 flawlessly executed each and every component on the plate, and pulled the most flavor from the swordfish on the night. The play of textures between the creamy grits, flaky fish and crisp sweet potato chips was masterful, requiring perfect timing on multiple fronts.
COURSE 5: Bertie County Peanut Butter NC Egg Custard, Hazelnut Chocolate Mousse, Bertie County Blistered Peanut Salted Caramel (Eggheads) - Score: 28.933
Team Eggheads went back to the dessert that served them so well in their first battle, a cheesecake reminiscent base in a ramekin. This one had even better consistency, though it lacked the same architecture that made their battle milk and honey dessert a hit.
COURSE 6: Bertie County Blistered Peanut Butter Local Goat Cheese Frozen Parfait, Dragon Fruit Relish, Chocolate Strawberry Wine Cream, Bertie County Blistered Peanut Brown Sugar Streusel (Curt’s Cucina) - Score: 25.72
Despite scoring on the low end of the scale, the final dish was unquestionably the most beautifully composed course of the evening, a creamy base beneath a quenelle of “wine cream,” an intoxicating custard of dark chocolate, fresh strawberries, red wine, eggs and cream. But like many desserts that fail to wow the voting public at Competition Dining, it was only semi-sweet. As a result, scores suffered.
Though scores were close through the first four courses, Team Eggheads once again took the victory on desserts, earning a major upset over the Competition Dining veterans of Curt’s Cucina. The final score was Team Eggheads over Team Curt’s Cucina, 29.077 to 28.093.
As the Eggheads tried on their new red chef jackets and held an oversized check up for photos, the trio from Curt’s Cucina packed up in the quiet kitchen. It was a disappointing defeat for head chef Curt Shelvey, but one he took in stride.
“It happens,” he said. “I wouldn’t change anything we did.” Shelvey was right. His team had done what it could with the ingredients provided. It just wasn’t their night.
Team Eggheads were in a more celebratory mood as the night wound down, even with a 5 a.m. catering gig looming. Their next battle, in the champions round, was months away, but they were already planning.
“We’re going to practice by sending our wives and girlfriends to the grocery store and ask them to surprise us,” Schabot said. “We’ll just cook whatever they bring back.”
The chefs were uniformly happy when they learned they only had to use the swordfish in their appetizers and entrees. “No smoked swordfish ice cream,” Team Eggheads’ Keith Calise said in relief.
The newer, more demanding format to Competition Dining had been a success, host Jimmy Crippen thought. It’s hard to disagree, as the diverse mix of ingredients had forced the week’s teams to cook inventive, wide-ranging menus that created a dining experience unlike any other in the Triangle. The events were streamlined, moving quicker than in past years, with more focus on the food placed in front of diners. Though the competitors have yet to be announced, the upcoming Competition Dining Raleigh series in July already should be no less innovative, unpredictable and exceptional.