Raleigh, N.C. — Diners chose a second semifinalist for the Got To Be NC Competition Dining Series Thursday night over six courses served up by competitors from Halifax and Apex.
Team Scratch Mavericks from Halifax and Wilson – Chelsi Hogue, owner, proprietor and executive chef at The Hen & The Hog; Jeremy Law, owner and chef at Soco Farm & Food in Wilson; and Jessica Ricks, sous chef at The Hen & The Hog – met Team Mirepoix from Wake County: Franz Propst, executive chef at Peak City Grill & Bar; Ryan Summers, chef at Chef's Palette Restaurant and Bar in Cary; and Tom Halik, chef and proprietor at Main Street Grille Café & Bakery in Wake Forest for a chance to battle in Raleigh's competition dining finale Sunday night.
How it works
At noon, the teams meet to learn what ingredients they will be required to feature in their dishes. For this semifinal, Scratch Mavericks and Mirepoix were presented with a classic and seasonal combination: Tomato and basil.
They then spent the afternoon planning and preparing three courses apiece.
Competition Dining courses are served blindly – diners don't know which dish is prepared by which team until the end of the night.
Every diner casts a ballot, with scores weighted between "joes" and "pros," the guest chefs and other culinary experts sprinkled into the crowd. Each course is graded on aroma, presentation, creativity, taste and use of the key ingredients. All scores are out of a possible 40 points.
Course 1: Heirloom Nectarine Tomato Shortcake, Thai Basil Pesto, Ran-Lew Dairy Milk Company, LLCButtermilk Biscuit, Goat Lady Dairy | Climax, NCChevre Crema, by Mirepoix -- Overall score: 28.96
Right out of the gate, diners got a taste of the diversity and creativity that characterize competition dining.
"Every bite's a little bit different," said Margo, from Chapel Hill.
A trip around the dining room showed that a common ingredient choice would prove a challenge to the chefs. I talked to several people who had pushed aside their tomatoes, citing a dislike for the fruit.
Course 2: Heirloom Tomato, Greek Basil, Wheatberry Melange; Hickory Syrup Vinaigrette, WhippedBoxcarr Handmade Cheese Robiola Fondue, by Scratch Mavericks -- Overall score: 23.675
The best part of the second course, according to my dining companions, was the fondue. This is where we pounced on the basket of breads provided by La Farm to sweep up every last drop.
"Can I get a bowl of this?" asked Michelle, of Holly Springs.
Course 3: Chilled & Pickled NC Shrimp; Sweet Corn, White Acre Field Pea, Cantaloupe and Purple Basil Salad, Heirloom Tomato Jam, Goodnight Brothers Country Ham Dust, by Mirepoix -- Overall score: 28.747
"I like anything pickled," said Karen, of Fuquay-Varina, when the description of course 3 popped up on the big screen.
However, she and others were disappointed at the lack of pickling flavor on the otherwise perfectly prepared, chilled shrimp.
The star of this course, if not in quantity, was the "ham dust," a deep-fried, crumbled version of country ham used as a garnish. Just the phrase ham dust had the whole room giggling.
"You could land a husband that way," said one diner, miming the application of ham dust as perfume.
Course 4: Grilled Heritage Farms Cheshire Pork Pork Cheek and Heirloom Tomato Curry, Black Rice, Baby Heirloom Tomato Confit, Local Blueberries, Lemon Basil, Chopped Bertie County Peanuts Ghost Pepper Peanuts, by Scratch Mavericks -- Overall score: 27.072
Course 4 was the only meat option of the evening, and it drew widely opposite reactions at my table. Zach classified it as his favorite, and, after dessert was served, said he'd have traded those courses for more of the pork cheek. Beth pushed it away, calling it her least favorite of the evening.
After three dishes that had strong individual elements, course 4 was more of a meld. Sweet blueberries cut the heat of the curry, while melt-in-your-mouth pork contrasted with the crunch of the peanuts.
"It didn't look that pretty, but it was gooood," said Margo, of Chapel Hill.
Course 5: Cinnamon Basil and Saffron Mousse Genoise, Sweet Tomato Glaze, NC Peach Coulis, NC Blueberry Coulis, by Mirepoix -- Overall score: 30.377
The first dessert brought an answer to a common question: How could the chefs integrate tomatoes and basil into something sweet. In this instance, the answer was "very delicately." The taste of tomato in the glaze was almost imperceptible. The basil served only as a garnish on the peaches, but one diner said it was the flavor combination that made the dish.
Course 6: Classic Cheesecake, Spiced Sunflower Kernel and Pecan Crust, Smoky Heirloom Tomato Gastrique, Italian Basil, NC Blueberries, by Scratch Mavericks
The final dessert again led to some widely differing opinions at my table. There was horse trading, as those who loved it clamored to finish the portions of those who were less of a fan.
Overheard: "This is terrible. Can I have yours?"
Beth, from Raleigh, encapsulated both respect for the effort and dislike for the outcome in saying, "They flew too close to the sun with this one."
She was also the source of the comment that best characterizes a competition dining experience. "It's delicious and confusing at the same time," she said.
Both teams attested to a level of comfort with the common ingredients, and noted the challenge of integrating tomatoes into a dessert course. But when the scores were read out, it was clear the team from Wake County would be the winners.
"We just stuck with what we knew," Mirepoix's Franz Propst said.
His team advances to Sunday's Raleigh finale, where they will face Will Work 4 Food out of Southern Pines.