Raleigh, N.C. — This round of the Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series might be held in Triangle, but Monday night's competitors drove an hour or more to battle it out in the semifinals, and the chefs brought their hometown crowds with them. Chef Chelsi Hogue of Ed's Southern Food and Spirits in Goldsboro faced off against Chef Curt Shelvey of Curt's Cucina in Southern Pines for a delicious and, at times, decadent approach to Battle: Pintade and Honey.
Each of tonight's chefs have their own following. Chef Chelsi Hogue has worked in a number of places, but is now working with Ed Cogdell at Ed's Southern Food and Spirits. Open just four months, Cogdell hopes to encourage other entrepreneurs to join a revitalization effort in downtown Goldsboro. “We take a real North Carolina approach to things,” he said. “Local farms, local fishermen, we try our best to go local when we can." At least three tables of people were there to cheer her on.
Chef Curt Shelvey brought a few tables of his own. Shelvey came to North Carolina when he served in the Marine Corps, and now he calls it his home. He worked a number of places (including a resort you may know called Pinehurst) before opening his own restaurant in Southern Pines.
Joyce Farms provided the evening's pintade - that's a guinea hen that is very unforgiving in its preparation. Specifically, as Chef Curt pointed out, “Overcook it just a little, and it dries out quickly.”
The pintade also threw a curve ball at Chef Chelsi, as she said she had never cooked with the poultry until battle night. The second ingredient was well-received by both chefs: Wildflower Honey from Cloister Honey out of Charlotte. This husband and wife team have a unique story all their own that started with a Christmas gift and ended up in the honeybee business.
Since there were two ingredients for the semi-final round, the chefs had a little flexibility. Each ingredient had to appear in two of the three courses.
The featured beer was provided by Double Barley Brewery out of Smithfield. Both their Touche' IPA and their Thrilla in Vanilla Porter – one of my personal favorites - were available on tap. Signature cocktails were available using spirits from the TOPO Distillery.
Competition Dining's Heidi Billotto even took us out to the bar to see how to make a Honeybee Martini using some of the simple syrup made by Cloister Honey. La Farm Bakery once again provided a basket of breads for each table, including that white chocolate baguette that everyone dove for when they opened the basket.
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: Joyce Farms Pintade Rillette, French Green Lentils, Roasted Beets, Fennel Cream (Hogue) Score: 24.979
The first course struck me as a simple yet confident way to introduce diners to pintade. The flavors and the texture made me think of my grandmother's chicken and dumplings... without the dumplings. Whether that was intentional or not, it scored the chef additional brownie points in my book. Corliss from Raleigh, a diner at table 13, agreed. “Great use of the pintade,” she said. “It reminded me of chicken from when I was a little girl.”
Course 2: Braised Joyce Farms Pintade, Pancetta, Black Kale Raviolo, Cauliflower Fondue, Cloister Wildflower Honey-Brown Butter Vinaigrette, Chive-Parmesan Crisp (Curt) Score: 28.566
This course presented as both more elaborate and more time consuming. In fact, we learned at the end of the night from Chef Ref Bobby Zimmerman that Chef Curt had not yet started the raviolo at 7 o'clock. A number of diners commented on the use of the chive-parmesan crisp and the cauliflower to set off the other flavors.
Course 3: Roasted Breast of Joyce Farms Pintade, Scott Farms Sweet Potato & Johnston County Mangalitsa Ham Biscuit, Cloister Wildflower Honey-Lusty Monk Original Sin Mustard, Creamed Collards & Cabbage (Hogue) Score: 19.245
The sweet potato and Mangalitsa ham biscuit once again provides a very common and very Southern frame of reference for the pintade. The honey was drizzled on the biscuit, and used to create a true honey mustard. The creamed collards and cabbage completed the picture.
Normally, I don't try to guess who cooked what dish at these events. As Competition Dining founder Jimmy Crippen is quick to say, “Mothers have been wrong, wives have been wrong, bosses have been wrong.” Chef Chelsi's boss, Ed Cogdell, sat at my table, and even he said he was just going to enjoy the food and see what came out of the kitchen next. However, the expert handling of another Southern treat made me quick to think this also came from the kitchen of Chef Chelsi.
Course 4: Roasted Breast of Joyce Farms Pintade, Sage Roasted Heritage Cheshire Pork Belly, Creamy Polenta, Cloister Honey Glazed Cippolini Onions, Wildflower Honey-Poultry Jus (Curt) Score: 32.916
Two bites of this dish, and I knew that whomever had created this plate full of flavor would win this battle overall. Pork belly is one of those ingredients that, as long as it's done well, makes a vast majority of diners happy. Add the moist pintade, glaze some Cippolini onions in the honey, and place it all on a bed of polenta... you have something there for everyone. Not too salty, not too sweet, and all the flavors played together like instruments in a symphony to create the greater whole.
Rich from Southern Pines weighed in with this observation: “The onion was the single best bite of the night.” Not often you hear such high praise for an onion.
When I asked around at the end of the night, 4 tables unanimously chose course 4 as THE best of the night. Two more tables had one outlier apiece – both diners because they don't like pork.
Course 5: Lavender-Cloister Wildflower Honey Soaked & Spiced Vanilla Pound Cake, Wildflower Honey-Tangerine Mascarpone Cream, Berry Compote, Crushed Marcona Almonds, Fleur de Sel (Hogue) Score: 22.411
Bring on the desserts! There was a lot going on in the spiced and soaked pound cake. The fleur de sel and crushed almonds balanced the sweet and the fruit nicely. The flavors played off each other so well that nothing was overpowering on the plate, and each time I took a bite, I noticed something different in the flavor profile that stood out in that particular combination of elements. If this isn't on the menu at Ed's, maybe it should be.
Course 6: Cloister Wildflower Honey-Olive Oil-Pistachio Cake, Chocolate-Red Wine Crema, Sour Cherry Mascarpone, Pink Peppercorn-Spiked Wildflower Honey (Curt) Score: 30.062
I appreciated the chocolate red wine crema as a nod to sweetness without being overpowering at this point in the night. I also appreciated the chance to try the drizzle of honey spiked with pink peppercorns. The use of honey in the cake, however, was lost on me. Once it's baked in as a sweetener, the honey tasted like any other sugar that may have been used.
Portion sizes had been so large that I was not able to finish the sixth course. However, I made sure to try every piece of it at least three times. After all, I did have to judge it, even if I was full.
Similar thoughts showed up in the #CompDiningNC Twitterstream from many diners, most accompanied by a second hashtag: “#firstworldproblems”.
I don't say this often, but I was right. The chef behind course 4 – that dreamy combination of honey and pork belly – was the chef who will move on to cook another battle. Chef Curt came out on top with a combined score of 30.51 to Chef Chelsi's 22.21.
“For two newcomers to the Competition Dining series, they each did a great job,” said series founder Jimmy Crippen. “This is a much different arena than working in your home kitchen to a home crowd, and they both learned how to play to that. The secret ingredient was outside both of their comfort zones, and they both stepped up.”
“The number one rule is fun,” Crippen said, “but we never said fun was easy.”
Chef Chelsi told me she definitely followed Crippen's rule. “What's not to love about this?” she asked when we spoke after the dinner. “Competition Dining isn't just fun, it challenges you, you get to work with great chefs, have a great experience, and get amazing exposure. I'd love to come back.”
Chef Curt said there is something else that appeals to him about this event: the opportunity to give back to the people who support him in his business and in this venture. “To be able to come out and see the faces of the people and know that they enjoy what we do, that's why we become chefs,” he said.
Chef Curt Shelvey will take on Weathervane's Spencer Carter in the semi-finals on March 3 at 1705 Prime. Tickets to that event are still available.
While this was not one of the closer scoring battles I've seen, I did not expect the scores to be quite so far apart. The meals presented showed great creativity, ability, and had a wonderful flavor at every turn. I've added both restaurants to my “must visit” list, and encourage you to do the same next time you're looking for an excuse to get out of town for something a little different.