Raleigh, N.C. — The team from Winston-Salem's Noble's Grille got about 5 hours sleep after their Final Fire win Wednesday night and was back in the kitchen Thursday for another victory, this one over Fire in the Triangle winner Dean Thompson, of Flights, and his team.
Thompson, who was cooking in his home kitchen at the Renaissance at North Hills, had a large and loud cheering section in Thursday's competition, but ultimately the diners chose John Bobby for a second straight night.
The Fire in the Triad champs will get a day to rest before facing the winner of Friday's battle Gerry Fong of Persimmons in new Bern, the Fire on the Dock winner, and Adam Hayes, Fire on the Mountain winner and chef at The Red Stag Grill. Asked how he planned to spend that day off, Bobby said, "We'll sit in the hot tub."
But they won't truly relax, admitted Lucia Bobby, John's wife and pastry chef. "The chefs keep getting better and the scores keep getting closer," she said.
John Bobby said the turnaround to compete on back-to-back nights was tight, but welcome. Lucia Bobby said after a long day in the kitchen she was looking forward to finding some place open late so they could celebrate with family.
"We'll probably end up having a sandwich," she said as her in-laws rejoiced around the Noble's Grille team after their win was announced.
The irony of the winning chefs grabbing a late sandwich is strong after the six excellent dishes that diners enjoyed at Final Fire Thursday night. Final Fire: Battle Pecans
The enthusiastic crowd made themselves and their allegiances known as the dining room filled up. Asked to Tweet their guess of a featured ingredient, Brian Thomas of G105 wrote, "Please be pork. Please be pork. Please be pork."
He was not correct, but pork would play a big part in the evening's indulgences.
The teams worked to feature pecans from High Rock Farm in Gibsonville in six dishes.
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: Bacon Confit, Crispy Farro, Wild Mushroom, 64° Egg Yolk, Pecan Puree, Candied Pecans (Noble's Grille with a score of 21.09)
"The sweet and smoky flavors together were wonderful," said Lisa Prince of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. Her dining companion called the dish "almost perfect" – a great way to start.
Course 2: Quail & Waffles, Pecan Fried Quail, Cornbread Waffle, Chipotle Sweet Potato, Honey Butter, Apple Ginger Honey, Candied Pecans (Flights with a score of 20.18)
Even before we saw our plates, the people at Table 4 began to nod, eager to taste a Southern favorite with a twist.
Mark Carouso, who described himself as "the ultimate foodie," had cleaned his plate and was reached for a roll to sop up more of the apple ginger honey when I stopped by to talk.
"Dipping the quail into this sauce was just outrageous," he said.
Course 3: Flounder, Citrus Ravioli, Pecan Sausage, Pecan Smoked Fennel, Tarragon Emulsion (Noble's Grille; Score: 23.32)
Course 3, the highest scoring of the night, left few diners feeling neutral. Chef Bobby's parents would later identify it as their favorite, and the judges agreed.
Jennifer in Raleigh had a different view. "I'm not a fan," she said. "I didn't taste the pecans at all in this dish. It was just good, not special."
"The flounder and citrus ravioli is a bold choice. Not universally popular, but bold nonetheless," a diner told me.
John Bobby's mother, seated at my table, was hesitant to identify a favorite course since it wasn't clear which ones her son had offered. When pressed, she noted that the flounder was the only one where she could not help herself from eating every bite.
Course 4: Pepsi® & Mystery Brewing Smoked Rye Stout Braised Pork Belly, Asian Pecan Glaze, Sweet Potato & Pecan Grits, Leese-Fitch Chardonnay Creamed Collards (Flights; Score: 21.24)
Diners took to Twitter to beg for seconds of this rich, meaty dish. One of my dining partners agreed that the collards alone could make a meal.
"I've not said anything yet was delicious," said diner Carrie, "but this dish..." And then she just drifted back into bliss.
Thompson again sent diners reaching for the bread to wipe up every drop of his Asian Pecan Glaze.
At the pro judges table, one person described this dish as "killer."
"Whichever chef did this pork belly," he said, "it was cooked to perfection."
Course 5: Toasted Pecan Caramel, Vanilla Cake, Spiced Diplomat, White Chocolate Pecan (Noble's Grille; Score: 21.60)
Expectations were high that Lucia Bobby's dessert skills would again be on display, and we were not disappointed. "Holy moly," said a woman named Beth, through a mouthful of the pudding-like diplomat.
"The diplomat was amazing," John Bobby's mother said before the scores were revealed and she knew the preparation was her daughter-in-law's.
This layered dish included sweet, salty and spicy tastes along with chewy, soft and crisp textures.
"Once I see the ingredient, I think in terms of texture, and what I want to put with it," Lucia Bobby said afterward. She said it usually takes her only about 10 to 15 minutes to formulate a plan for what to prepare.
Course 6: Apple Pie with Pecan Streusel, Eggnog Ice Cream, Maker’s Mark Chocolate Sauce, Spicy Pecan Syrup (Flights; Score 21.38)
Many diners I talked to found the use of apples with pecans unsurprising.
"The highlighted ingredient needs to be the first to speak," said one pastry chef in the dining room. "That did not happen with these. Perhaps more practice in preparation would have allowed the chefs to evolve their techniques and, no matter the chef, they would have delivered better," she said.
On Friday, chefs from Asheville and New Bern pair off for the chance to meet John Bobby and his Noble's Grille team in the championship round Saturday. Tickets are sold out, but WRAL Out and About, an official blogger of the Final Fire competition, will have recaps of each night’s meal.