Raleigh, N.C. — The best of the best are in Raleigh this weekend. Competition Dining is bringing the heat, with one more weekend of high-stakes culinary adventures. Wednesday night, two of the state's five hottest chefs squared off in Round One of Final Fire, the event that will crown the state's Competition Dining champion.
Before we get into the food though, the finals have a whole new look. They’ve moved to a new venue, the Renaissance at North Hills, which is also the home kitchen for Fire in the Triangle champion Dean Thompson. Competition Dining founder Jimmy Crippen and his partners turned the hotel ballroom into much more than just another dinner. New video boards grace each corner of the room so the diners can clearly see the menu. Another popular feature was the social media board, where you can watch real-time as your properly hashtagged tweets roll across Twitter raving about the food, the atmosphere, and the entire experience. If you’d like a sample, just search #CompDiningNC on Twitter.
Crippen has also stepped up the technology for Final Fire. Judging is still done by an app on your phone or tablet, but there’s a new element to that as well. A photo of each course appears in the app as it is served. Those photos are ready to be Facebooked or Tweeted from the app while you vote. “Don’t forget, you don’t have to take pictures of your food anymore,” Crippen often reminded diners. “Use our photos, so you can eat your food faster.”
“We found that across the state, diners were pausing, taking time to photograph their food, then send it out over social media, and then they would eat,” Crippen said later. “This lets us speed up the service a little bit and lets people get to the food they’re here to sample.”
Competition Dining has also teamed up with HitsTech to bring their own data server to the event. The idea came to them after a fiber was cut in Washington, D.C., during a competition and it prevented them from getting the data they needed from a server in Conover.
“We had to post the results the next morning, and that wasn’t acceptable to us,” Crippen said. The In-room server comes with one more unexpected perk – it allows Crippen to offer a charging station for those whose devices are dying mid-meal.
Speaking of the meal, let’s get on to the main attraction – the Final Fire!
Fire in the Triad winner Chef John Bobby of Noble’s Grille in Winston-Salem took on Fire in the City winner Chef Jon Fortes of Mimosa Grill in Charlotte in a battle that was decided by less than three-tenths of a point. Their secret ingredients were Cheerwine and Cackalacky Spice Sauce, made here in Chapel Hill. They were revealed to the teams at 10 a.m., and service for about 150 people started hitting our tables at 7:30 p.m. sharp.
The NC Beer Guys themselves were in the house, and before the meal, I found them enjoying a Thornfield’s End Smoked Rye Stout from Mystery Brewing, and they convinced me to do the same. They had already tried the other local options: Durham’s Fullsteam Brewery brought the Carver Sweet Potato Lager, Gizmo Brew Works had a Snow Wonder Pale Ale and White Street Brewery brought their Kolsch-Style Ale to the event. Juice Wine Purveyors brought Bench Pinot Noir for the pairings as well.
Competition Dining brought in a few professional judges to score the meals. They were Chef Scott Crawford of Herons, 2012 Fire in the Rock Champion Chef Michael Foreman and 2012 Fire in the Triangle competitor Chef Michael Lee of Sono. Sloane Heffernan from WRAL joined us, along with three food bloggers in the house: WRAL Out & About, food writer Heidi Billotto from Charlotte, and Nikki Miller-Ka of the blog Nik Snacks.
One of the main messages you’ll hear at Competition Dining events is the importance of fire safety. Blowing Rock Fire Chief Kent Graham has worked with Crippen for years, and attends the events to promote fire safety in the kitchen. Each event opens with an awareness message, and Graham wants to drive the point home. “44 percent of home fires are caused in the kitchen,” he said. “That’s half the house fires in the US, and cooking is the number one cause of burns, especially in children. If we can get that message out, it’s worth the work.”
Here’s the course-by-course breakdown of the meal, along with reviews and results. In each round, the diners (the Joes) and the professional judges (the Pros) grade the dish on aroma, presentation, creativity, use of the ingredients and other factors. The Pros and the Joes are then averaged together for a final score; each one out of a possible 30 points.
Course 1: Cheerwine Braised Beet Salad, Johnston County Country Ham, House Ricotta, Pickled Onions, Spiced Nuts, Cheerwine Vinaigrette (Mimosa Grill, with a score of 18.44)
I sat with a group of diners at Table 13 who had a range of experience with competition dining. Two people at the table had not experienced it before, and on the other hand, there was a couple who have traveled the state to these competitions, and returned early from a vacation in Florida for the evening’s event. It led to an interesting discussion of some of the meals in less-than-technical terms that got right down to brass tacks about their opinions, and one of those opinions from fellow WRAL Out & About blogger Jodi Leese Glusco was, “Beets? Really? I hate beets.”
The choice proved to be risky with other tables as well. Summer from Wake Forest and her companions at table 11 were split. Summer said, “I hate beets, but I tried them since I was here, I loved them, and I ate the whole salad.” One of her dining companions quickly replied, “I still hate beets! Bad choice.”
Course 2: Charred Veal Loin, Cackalacky Sweet Cheerwine Sausage, Black Garlic Gnocchi, Cheerwine Ricotta, Cackalacky Gastrique, crispy Brussels leaves (Noble’s Grille with a score of 20.87)
The chef who cooked this dish used both ingredients well, but the meats were overcooked for the opinions at our table. The accent pieces, though, were absolutely delicious. The Black Garlic Gnocchi made me wish there were more of it on my plate, and the crispy Brussels leaves were a hit across the dining room. People remarked on them all evening, both in conversation and in Twitter comments, coming back to them as one of their favorite pieces of the entire meal, even after desserts.
After the first two courses, the general opinion at our table was summed up by one of the diners: “If you didn’t read the menu and know the ingredients were in there, would you know from the taste that there was Cheerwine or Cackalacky Sauce in these meals?”
Course 3: Cheerwine-Infused Pork Trilogy: Braised Cheshire Pork Shoulder with Sweet Potatoes, Cheerwine-Glazed Pork Confit with Brussels Cream, Cackalacky Sweet Cheerwine Barbecue Pork Loin, Chive Biscuit with Fennel and Apple (Mimosa Grill, with a score of 22.37)
This dish was the biggest hit of the night. The Joes scored it a 24 out of 30, and the pros scored it a 21.67 out of 30. Three ways to cook one piece of pork left something for everyone. My favorite was the Braised pork shoulder on a bed of pureed sweet potatoes, with the Cheerwine-glazed pork confit coming in a close second. The chive and fennel biscuit would be amazing on any menu, or even on any other dish, but here it just had so much flavorful competition that it came in a very close third.
Food blogger Nikki Miller-Ka thought the biscuit was good too. She tweeted during this round: “SO GLAD there is a biscuit to sop up this porky, smoky, saucy deliciousness. Call me Billy Idol 'I want more. More. MORE.' #CompDiningNC”
Course 4: Pepper-Crusted Pork Loin, Duck Fat Sweet Potatoes, Cheerwine Sausage, Bacon Braised Bok Choy, Pickled Cherries, Blueberry Confit, Fullsteam Carver Pork Brado, Cracklin’ Salad (Noble’s Grille, with a score of 17.98)
Looking at this menu before the food hit the table, there appeared to be something in it for everyone. I was intrigued by the Bacon Bok Choy, Jodi Glusco was interested in the Cracklin’ Salad, and Sloane Heffernan was interested in the potatoes. When the dish arrived though, we were all disappointed. All three of us felt that the smokiness of the pork overwhelmed all the other flavors. Comments at Table 13 came fast and furious: “too smoky,” “too salty,” “need more water.” One diner said it tasted like liquid smoke had been poured on the dish because it all tasted the same. This was the only course that no one at the table finished eating. An informal survey of the five tables surrounding us showed more food left on the plate than I had noticed in any other course so far.
I stopped in at Table 6, where a diner told me that Course 3 did well balancing the bold flavors, but Course 4 was just too much. Another diner went on to praise the third course, saying “This was the only dish where I could taste the Cheerwine, and the pork was very flavorful. I only wish it had arrived at the table warm.”
Table 2 weighed in with similar thoughts. Charlie from Fuquay-Varina said, “Round 3 was better, because everything was balanced and well-done. In Round 4, the pork was shaved very thin, but it was tough, and the food not as creative.”
In their introductory videos, both chefs had mentioned a love of wood-fired grilling. In further discussion, we realized that this was the fourth course with pork, and everything except the beet salad had involved some kind of wood-fired grilling, so perhaps our tastebuds were simply all porked out and ready for something different.
Course 5: Cheerwine Chocolate Cake, Cheerwine Dulce, Cheerwine Fleur de Sel, Cheerwine Cherry Ice Cream Float (Mimosa Grill, with a score of 19.58)
Did someone order shots for the room? The presentation of this first dessert course was whimsical, with the ice cream float presented as a shot, which is how much of the room consumed it. That may have changed the flavor experience were were supposed to have, but it made people laugh and let them enjoy the food. That said, there were a few diners found it too whimsical. Jackie from Wake Forest summed it up with the question, “Would you order a float if you went out for dessert at a fairly nice restaurant?”
The cake met with some disapproval at my table. The Fleur de Sel turned some people off since they couldn’t figure out where the chunks of salt were coming from. I enjoyed it, and ate most of the cake, stopping only because I needed to save some room for the next and final course.
Course 6: Double Chocolate Torte, Cherry Cheerwine Compote, Dark Chocolate Cheerwine Ganache, Chocolate Streusel (Noble’s Grill, with a score of 22.39)
The final course of the evening was a delicious dessert. This one seemed to please everyone I asked, and it was definitely the higher scoring dessert when the scores were unveiled. About two bites in, though, a man at my table made a comment about the presentation of both desserts that made it a little harder to enjoy. I’ll let this tweet from another diner at the table sum it up for you: “My #CompDiningNC companion has compared both dessert courses to poop. Kinda ruins it for ya.”
Given the strong feelings at every table about the differences in the dishes, this could have gone a number of ways. It would all come down to which chef had cooked which meal.
The professional judges were impressed with the food that came out of the kitchen. Chef Scott Crawford of Herons said that all the dishes were ambitious. Chef Michael Lee of Sono said that every dish that came out of the kitchen was worthy of a Final Fire battle, and Chef Michael Foreman said he was interested to see what the numbers had to say.
The numbers revealed that Chef John Bobby of Noble’s Grill was the winner by 29-hundredths of a point. Bobby cooked with his wife, and gave her credit for their dessert success, and thanked his sous chef for her expertise at bringing the secret ingredients to life. He also sees where a few things could change for his next battle.
Photos: Final Fire Battle Cheerwine & Cackalacky “We made a few mistakes in the second course,” he said. “I see it, I taste it and the scores show it. We just need to keep calm, and learn from our mistakes rather quickly.”
Bobby and crew get very little down time. The crew from Noble’s Grill competes Thursday night against Chef Dean Thompson of Flights here in Raleigh. The event ended at 10:30 p.m., leaving them about 12 hours before the next secret ingredient unveiling. Bobby said he hoped to get a good night’s sleep and start over.
As for the crew from Mimosa Grill, Chef Jon Fortes and company are headed back to Charlotte. While they wanted to stay and experience the challenge, they told WRAL they have a restaurant to run.
Crippen said he was pleased with the evening’s experience.
“Everything was close, the chefs enjoyed the work, the people enjoyed the experience, and it came down to a close battle,” Crippen said. “We worked out what few kinks we had, and if I don’t lose my voice in the next few nights, this will truly be a unique experience.”
If you don’t have tickets, we’re sorry to say the remaining three events are all sold out. The Final on Saturday night sold out in less than 2 minutes, and all four nights sold out in eight minutes when tickets went on sale last month.
WRAL Out and About is the official blogger of the Final Fire competition. We’ll have recaps of each night’s meal.