Raleigh, N.C. — Monday night’s Got to Be NC Competition Dining battle kicked off the quarter-final rounds with Midtown Grille Chef Benjamin Harris battling against Rex Healthcare Chef Ryan Conklin. Both chefs entered the evening riding high on their experience from their first round victories and focused on showing they have what it takes to move on to the semi-finals.
Harris, a native to Raleigh, connected with food at an early age working with his grandmother in her garden. Harris spent a majority of his teenage years working his way through the kitchen line. He decided to further his education by studying Culinary Arts at Johnson and Wales University and has worked as a chef in kitchens of prominent restaurants in Charlotte and Charleston. In the summer of 2014, Harris returned to Raleigh to be close to his family and take a position as the Executive Chef at Midtown Grille in North Hills. This is Harris’ first year competing in the Competition Dining event.
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 Anthony Hopkins and Michael Jackson. He also worked as a chef in Limerick, Ireland. He has been managing healthcare foodservice for the past 10 years and is committed to reinventing modern healthcare cuisine. Representing Rex, he has won gold and silver medals in healthcare food competitions. Conklin served as a pro judge during last year’s Competition Dining event, but this is also his first time as a competitor.
But before we talk about the dishes, you probably need to know the secret ingredient! There were actually two secret ingredients the chefs had to work with. The room was all abuzz when it was announced that the secret ingredients were Certified Angus Beef Brand Tri-Tip and High Rock Farm Chestnut Flour.
Host and Competition Dining founder Jimmy Crippen explained that each ingredient had to be used in at least two of the three dishes. This left many assuming that the chefs would likely avoid including beef in the dessert course.
The Certified Angus Beef Brand Tri-Tip posed an interesting challenge for the chefs because this lean boneless cut is known to have grain changes. This means the chefs had to be extra careful in how they cut the meat in order to avoid cutting across the grain. The diners at my table were also curious to see how the chefs would tackle using the Chestnut Flour. Many admitted this would be their first time having it so they didn’t know what to expect.
The featured beer of the evening came from Nickel Point Brewing Company in Raleigh. They brought two of their popular beers – their Scotch Ale and English IPA. I am a huge IPA fan and enjoyed a point with the meat dishes over the course of the evening.
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: Black Garlic, Homemade High Rock Farm Chestnut Flour Pasta, Braised Certified Angus Beef Brand Tri-Tip, Smoked Fennel Kimchi (Harris) Score: 27.21
Once again the night was off to a great start with this first dish. This course did an excellent job of incorporating both the Tri-Tip and Chestnut flour. The braised Tri-Tip was very flavorful and tender and the use of chestnut flour to make pasta was very interesting and tasted delicious. Everyone at my table agreed things has started off well with this excellent first course.
Course 2: Latin Braised Certified Angus Beef® Brand Tri-Tip High Rock Farm Chestnut Flour-Crusted Crab Cake, Butternut Squash Guacamole, Perry Lowe Orchards Pink Lady Apple-Fennel-Radish Salad (Conklin) Score: 29.82
The second course also made great use of both ingredients. While many at my table were impressed with the combination of the Tri-Tip combined with the chestnut flour crusted crab cake it was the butternut squash that stole the show for this dish. Overall everyone was very impressed lead at my table to and score the dish quite high. This was actually the highest scoring dish of the evening according to the “Joes” at 32.17 though it received a significantly lower score of 24.33 from the “Pros”.
Course 3: High Rock Farm Chestnut Flour-Fried Virginia Oyster, Grilled Certified Angus Beef®Brand Tri-Tip, Benton’s Bacon Emulsion, Goat Lady Dairy Chèvre Polenta, Foy Farms Radish Sprout, Harissa (Harris) Score: 30.49
This was another high scoring dish at my table. Everyone just loved the chestnut flour-fried oyster. It was the highlight of the dish and there wasn’t a single person at the table who didn’t clean their plate. With the great combination of the perfectly cooked Tri-Tip and fried oyster it’s no surprise that this dish ranked high with both the “Joes” and the “Pros” with scores of 31.13 and 29.0 respectively.
Seared Certified Angus Beef® Brand Tri-Tip High Rock Farm Chestnut Flour & Cocoa Crust, Smokey Red Chimichurri, Scott Farms Sweet Potato-Bacon-Farro Salad, Avocado Purée, Foy Farms Radish Sprouts (Conklin) Score: 28.18
After experiencing great plates during courses 2 and 3 this dish felt like it missed the mark it was shooting for. The seared Tri-Tip was cooked beautifully but all at my table agreed they could not taste the chestnut flour and cocoa crust. It felt like this was missing from the dish entirely. They avocado puree was a nice accompaniment and added a unique twist to the dish, but ultimately it felt like this dish fell a little short. This was a lower scoring dish at my table and the “Pros” ended up scoring it a whole two points lower than the Joes.
Course 5: Meringue, Carbonated-Pickled North Carolina Blueberries, High Rock Farm Chestnut Flour Crumble, White Chocolate Cream(Harris) Score: 27.87
The first dessert course got mixed reviews at my table. The individual flavors were excellent and many raved about the use of carbonated-pickled blueberries and white chocolate cream. One fellow diner even proclaimed the dessert “tastes like Thanksgiving in my mouth!” However despite the good flavor profile and nice use of the chestnut flour crumble some felt the dish just wasn’t as creative as they had hoped for. Ultimately this proved to be the 3rd highest scoring dish of the night by the “Joes” at 29.25 though the “Pros” scored it somewhat lower at 24.67.
Course 6: Perry Lowe Orchards Cameo Apple-High Rock Farm Chestnut Flour-Foie Gras Cobbler, White Chocolate Semi Freddo, Butter Pecan Syrup (Conklin) Score: 29.71
I’m a big fan of apples in desert so I really enjoyed this last dish, but something about this dessert left many at my table confused. We all agreed it was quite delicious but none of us could detect the Foie Gras or the use of chestnut flour provided in the course description. The addition of the butter pecan syrup was a nice surprise with this dessert and it won many over flavor wise, but it was hard to figure out where the nights ingredients were incorporated into this dish. The excellent flavor of this dish won over the “Joes” with a score of 29.56 with the “Pros” scoring it slightly lower at 26.11.
At the end of the evening you could feel the tension of a tight race after a well fought battle in the kitchen. Both chefs had done a great job with the challenging ingredients and there was no clear front-runner in the minds of the diners.
As the scores were revealed for each course many of the diners were a little surprised at the difference in scoring between the “Joes” and the “Pros.” Some of the crowd favorites received significantly lower scores from the pro judges. This may have been tied to the judges being a bit more critical of the use of the night’s challenging secret ingredients. As the scoring went back and forth with neither chef in a commanding lead it became clear that once again the determining factor would be the dessert scores
In the end, the final scores separated the chefs by a mere 0.71 points, but it was Chef Conklin of Rex Healthcare with the help of his high scoring dessert to claimed victory in the night’s battle.
Conklin will return to the Competition Dining kitchen on Feb. 23 in the semi-final round when Rex Healthcare takes on the winner of the Tuesday night's quarterfinal round between Four Square and Faire. Tickets are still available.