Raleigh, N.C. — The anticipation was palpable as the night began. Two highly esteemed and very talented chefs went head to head after being two time champions in regional finals.
Chef Dean Thompson of Flights at Renaissance North Hills won the Fire in The Triangle series and Chef John Fortes of Mimosa Grill was the champion of Fire in the City battles in Charlotte.
The prizes on the line: $4,000, a hand-forged set of knives from Charlotte-based Ironman Forge and a trip to Napa Valley, Calif., to the pro chef program at the CIA Greystone campus, compliments of Kikkoman. The runner-up would receive $1,000.
As per requirements, each chef produced 3 dishes, using at least 2 of 3 secret ingredients in each dish. The secret ingredients for the Final Fire Battle of Champions were Apple Mill Apple Butter, Atlantic Caviar & Biltmore Winery Sparkling Wine Blanc de Blanc, (Methode Champenoise).
This would prove to be a truly unpredictable night! The apple butter was a bit more challenging to incorporate. The caviar was actually quite understated. It was easily incorporated into sauces, as was the sparkling wine. I had a chance to taste the wine. It was slightly fruity with a hint of apples, had good acid, and a balanced palate. All in all, it was not difficult wine to work with.
La Farm Cary provided artisan breads. There was a selection of NC wines, but Adam’s Vineyards and Winery was featured for the evening. Also on hand were Raleigh Brewery and Double Barley Brewery and a selection of craft beers were available. Pate Dawson’s Mac Sullivan and Joel Sullivan were seated with Pro Judges 2012 Final Fire champion Ryan Payne, 2013 Final Fire champion Adam Hayes and author and food critic John Batchelor. Batchelor was one of the founding Competition Dining judges and has written a book "Chefs of the Mountains," sourcing 45 chefs.
Commissioner David Smith from the Department of Agriculture was also in attendance, as was Tim Parrish, who was working with the kitchen crew throughout. Paul Amburn was seated with Team Thompson’s family, and Rick Stapleton of Pate Dawson was also present. Owner of Mimosa Grill Dominic Chappellet and family were in attendance. Randi Quirk and Claire Niver from Pepsi Co., and Chris Strickland from Alsco were also on hand.
I had opportunity to chat briefly with Ron Joyce of Joyce farms. Joyce has been operating the farm since 1962. They pride themselves on offering vegetable fed, completely ‘naked’ all-natural meats without hormones, antibiotics or any other additives. This prevents masking of true flavors with chemicals common in large scale meat manufacturing. They also raise many French heirloom lineages of poultry sustainably and with haute cuisine methodology. Culinary tradition has shown that certain species of meats, especially poultry, present with the best quality and flavor by being fed specific types of vegetation or fruits, such as berries, classically speaking.
According to host and Competition Dining creator Jimmy Crippen, Chief Keith Graham of Blowing Rock Fire and Rescue, “is the ‘Fire’ in Fire Battles”, and has been with him since day one. It was his idea to incorporate the theme of fire safety and get the State Fire Marshall office involved. They have built a truly great concept working together, but also raised awareness by reminding people that the number one cause of home fires and burn injuries is cooking.
Our table was lively, with Michael, Denise and Meredith Medlin, Brody Messmer and several others. Some of our group could not eat each of the courses for personal reasons or declined quoting.
The night would prove interesting. All had favorite courses and some felt strongly about each.
COURSE 1: Competition Dining Breadless Benedict, “Our” Lamb Sausage, Biltmore Sparkling Wine Atlantic Caviar & Pancetta Vinaigrette, Sparkling Wine Caviar Sabayon, Lime Caviar, Egg, Asparagus - Chef Jon Fortes of Mimosa Grill
Voter Score: 28.257
Pro Score: 23.667
Weighted Score: 25.962
This was a visually appealing course. But as the night would prove, eggs were a risky proposition, especially poached eggs. This course was tasty, but yolks were quite runny, and that can be touchy for some. Others wanted more developed flavor.
COURSE 2: Pepper-Crusted Venison, Apple Mill Apple Butter & Atlantic Caviar Gnocchi with Apple Brown Butter, Mushrooms, Juniper Biltmore Sparkling Wine Hollandaise, Truffle Oil - Chef Dean Thompson of Flights
Voter Score: 31.455
Pro Score: 24.333
Weighted Score: 27.894
Of the two appetizers, this was the crowd favorite. Chef Dean Thompson is no stranger to handling venison. Chef Ryan Payne gave it a perfect score. It was executed well, the texture of the venison was great, and it was very representative. Denis Dronne (a chef himself), from Joyce Farms and Paul Amburn of Pate Dawson-Southern Foods chatted about the flavors so far. We discussed the flavor harmony among the dishes, especially the venison and the apple butter gnocchi, as well as the white wine vs. traditionally red wine component. As we chatted, course three popped up. We immediately agreed that apples are more classically paired with pork, so it would prove to be an interesting course.
COURSE 3: Duo of Carolina Pork - Apple Mill Apple Butter Pork Rillette and Biltmore Sparkling Wine Braised Pork Belly, Goat Cheese, Andouille, Leek & Mushroom Bread Pudding, Sparkling Wine & Apple Butter Squash Sauce - Chef Jon Fortes of Mimosa Grill
Voter Score: 29.771
Pro Score: 28.333
Weighted Score: 29.052
It was indeed interesting! This was the favorite of the entrees. The rillettes and pork belly had tons of flavor and the bread pudding was quite good. The sauce complimented the dish. There was overwhelming agreement that this was one of the best dishes of the night. Chef Adam Hayes and wife Ashley agreed that the pork dish was their favorite so far.
COURSE 4: Breakfast for Dinner - Apple Mill Apple Butter Pork Sausage, Cheddar Chive Biscuit, Atlantic Caviar White Gravy, Perfectly Poached Egg, Fennel with Biltmore Sparkling Wine Vinaigrette - Chef Dean Thompson of Flights
Voter Score: 24.193
Pro Score: 17.000
Weighted Score: 20.596
Course four had all the elements, but seemed slightly underdone on several counts. The biscuit still tasted a bit neutral but had a nice texture. The gravy was very subtle. The sausage texture was a bit soft and crumbly. The minute I saw “Perfectly Poached Egg” though, I knew trouble was lurking. They were shaped beautifully. But having served large-volume eggs and omelets to order, it is no surprise that everyone has a different take on eggs. While classically trained chefs might agree to some extent, the average diner will have wildly varying ideas about what is deemed ‘perfect.' I like a soft egg, but as a whole dish, the crowd was not enthusiastic.
COURSE 5: Autumn Harvest Trio - Fried Sweet Potato Pie with Apple Mill Apple Butter Honey Drizzle, Pumpkin Cheesecake with Biltmore Sparkling Wine Grape Syrup, Apple Pie & Walnut Ice Cream, Sparkling Wine & Apple Caramel - Chef Jon Fortes of Mimosa Grill
Voter Score: 28.771
Pro Score: 24.000
Weighted Score: 26.385
Moving on to dessert, the sweet potato pie was delicious, and the ice cream had lovely tidbits of flavor reminiscent of crispy toffee brittle. My only complaint was a bit serious. I actually had an oniony flavor in my cheesecake. I thought I was mistaken, so I tried again. It was a pronounced savory flavor. I don’t know what happened. The rest of the dish was quite good.
COURSE 6: Carrot & Apple Mill Apple Butter Cake with Caramelized White Chocolate & Apple Butter Streusel, Biltmore Sparkling Wine Icing, Apple Butter Mousse, Sparkling Wine & Atlantic Caviar Salted Caramel, Sparkling Wine Apple Chip, Candied Walnuts, Apple Butter Brandy Frozen Custard - Chef Dean Thompson of Flights
Voter Score: 29.952
Pro Score: 28.333
Weighted Score: 29.143
This was the best of the desserts. All of the flavors harmonized well, and each component was good. What was interesting is not that one chef was overwhelmingly better but that they were both good in different aspects, to differing degrees. The Medlins at our table was simply happier with the meat dishes! All of the dishes were thoughtfully prepared and tasty. Eggs were a gamble in each category. It may have been easier for apple butter to compliment a breakfast or brunch for dinner type of dish, but this proved to be a volatile subject for a large crowd.
Both chefs had ben knocked out of the Final Fire series in the first round last year, so each had something to prove this year. In the end, Fortes bested Thompson by less than 2 percentage points.
Fortes said he was "overwhelmed" but happy with the outcome. "It's been a long day," he said.
It has been a stimulating process that challenged some of the best chefs across the entire state to reach for new heights in all aspects of their cooking. This season has also elevated the Fire series once again, and left diners anticipating next year’s competitions already! Some are waiting for it to go national!
Congratulations to Team Mimosa Grill, and perhaps we’ll see Team Flights again next year! Knowing what a fierce competitor Dean Thompson is, I am pretty sure he is going to be back.
This battle’s ending was bittersweet, as this was Chef Ref Laurence Willard’s last Competition Dining season! He will continue in his role at Pate Dawson-Southern Foods.
Competition Dining is sponsored by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, Pate Dawson-Southern Foods, Pepsi Bottling Ventures, Certified Angus Beef and local partners in each region of North Carolina.