Raleigh, N.C. — Teams from Wake County and Pinehurst spent Sunday in the kitchen and served up six courses for 150 diners in the finale of the Raleigh series of Competition Dining.
Team Mirepoix – 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 – met Team Will Work 4 Food – Matthew Hannon, chef at Ironwood Restaurant; Jen Curtis, chef de cuisine at Chef Warren's Bistro in Southern Pines; and Niklas Anderson, sous chef at Curt’s Cucina in Southern Pines – in the battle to determine the top team from the Triangle area and advance to the statewide finals to be held in November.
Each team advanced through two rounds of competition to make it to Sunday's final.
How it works
At noon, the teams meet to learn what ingredients they will be required to feature in their dishes. For the finale, they were given two: Certified Angus Beef and fresh blackberries.
They then spent the afternoon planning and preparing three courses apiece. The requirement was that beef be featured in two of three of each team's dishes, and the blackberries be included in all three.
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. Reigning Raleigh competition dining champion Ryan Conklin, the chef at Rex Hospital, was in the house Sunday among the pros.
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: Grilled Marinated Certified Angus Beef ® brand Flank Steak, Clemson Blue Cheese Flan, Local Blackberry Gastrique, Herb Salad, Cabernet Vinaigrette by Mirepoix -- Score: 28.88
Around my table were a combination of competition dining veterans, including a couple who make the trip to each region and Randy Eli Whitney of Ran-Lew Dairy, and two couples who were experiencing the competition dining atmosphere for the first time.
"We're off to a good start," said Tim from High Point as the first course hit the table.
Course 2: ColdWater Creek Farms Cornmeal Battered Certified Angus Beef ® brand Ground Chuck & Foie Gras Corndog, Blackberry Ketchup, Lusty Monk Mustard & NC Peach Mostarda, NC Silver Queen Corn Chow Chow by Will Work 4 Food -- Score: 31.726
The second dish showed the creativity and boundary-pushing common in competition dining. Eager diners used Wikipedia to figure out what to expect from mostarda (it is an Italian condiment made of candied fruit and mustard) while the servers made their way through the room.
"Sometimes I think they make up these words," Whitney said.
After it arrived, though, there was disappointment. The portions varied widely in size, and diners agreed that the corn dog needed the moisture provided by the mostarda, the ketchup or both to make it compelling.
"There wasn't any pop," said David from Raleigh.
Course 3: Braised Certified Angus Beef ® brand Short Ribs, Blackberry Cabernet Sauce, Aged White Cheddar Grits, Braised NC Greens, Quick Pickled Green Beans, Onion Confit by Mirepoix -- Score: 30.984
The sole shortcoming of course three was the absence of the greens in the description. We were told that some diners got them, but they were left off the plates at my table.
Nonetheless, it earned raves.
"I'm going to need bread for every bit of this sauce," one diner said, reaching for the basket of samples from La Farm.
Course 4: Bourbon Barrel Soy & Rosemary CAB Strip Loin, Local Fried Green Tomatoes, NC Corn Puree, Blackberry Demi Glace by Will Work 4 Food -- Score: 27.944
"This was nicely executed, but the one before was so satisfying," said Mark from Cary.
Again, the fried element – this time the green tomatoes – was missing something, and several diners left that bit unfinished.
Course 5: Hazelnut Tulip, Blackberry Mousse, Rose Jelly Glaze, Blackberry-Tarragon Jam Filled Brioche Pillow, Local Roasted NC Peaches by Mirepoix -- Score: 32.957
"It IS pretty," was the reaction as this dish arrived at the table.
Across the dining room, in comments and on Twitter, diners remarked on the diversity on the plate. "It's like three different people designed this dessert," one said. "There is a lot going on here," said another.
Tim, of High Point, who said he averaged 25 competition dining events per year, called it in saying, "That's going to be tough to beat."
Course 6: S’mores: Malted Chocolate Sorghum Graham Cracker, Blackberry Ran Lew Dairy Buttermilk Ice Cream, OBX Sea Salt Marshmallow Fluff, Blackberry Bourbon Caramel, Corn Nut Cocoa Dust by Will Work 4 Food
Those at my table got an added treat with the final dessert, a sample of white and chocolate milks from our dining companion Whitney, of Ran-Lew Dairy. Ran-Lew, in Snow Camp, is family-run, producing fresh, non-homogenized, low temperature pasteurized milk bottled right on the farm. "That milk was in the cow this morning," Whitney said.
Course 6 contrasted with Course 5 in that the elements of the dessert were best melded together. The challenge of serving 150 diners at once was apparent as the ice cream and marshmallow fluff began to melt. That only hastened the integration of the parts into a rich, sweet, salty, chocolately delight.
After the teams took their victory laps and the scores were read, it was apparent that Mirepoix would claim the championship.
The greatest challenge, Franz Propst said, was to avoid over-thinking the application of two very common ingredients. "There are so many ways you can go," he said, "It made it more difficult to decide on a plan."
Popst had praise for the team from Pinehurst as well.
"They are really talented," he said.
The winners, Team Mirepoix, will face off with five other North Carolina regional champs in the Competition Dining Battle of Champions to be held in Raleigh Nov. 11-20.