Raleigh, N.C. — Battle three of Fire in the Triangle was all one could expect and more.
Arriving early for the ingredient reveal was an eye-opener, as I learned shortly just what it takes to compete among professional chefs. Confidence, cool, and skill reigned for the day.
Chef Spencer Carter of Weathervane was the favorite of many diners coming into the dinner, mainly due to familiarity. The repeated phrase was, “I haven’t heard of Driftwood. Where is that?”
An inside look
Referee Chefs Laurence Willard and Billy Seay were all over 1705 Prime, the home of Rocky Top Catering, working logistics and generally maintaining smooth operations for contestants while Host and Field Master Jimmy Crippen saw that things ran smoothly for the event. When asked what he thought of this year’s competition, he replied, “I love all of them! This is my baby. It’s my passion.” His stated goal with the battles is to elevate the food and chefs in the areas where they cook, not just here, but across the country. A lofty and worthy goal indeed!
Taking a grand tour of the kitchen, I noticed that ingredients were set up with ease of access and mobility in mind, storage was well organized, and needs were met as much as possible. Teams also shared space, just like in any kitchen, and had equal access to facilities.
Unlike some competitive scenarios, the back of house was practically serene as professionals went about their preparation with a quiet confidence and steady bustle characteristic of old hands at the game. There was a sense of separateness but camaraderie and mutual respect as each team cooked up their specialties in hopes of being the winner. They were still very busy and handled any (to be expected) surprises with aplomb.
The secret ingredient was not so difficult to incorporate in this battle. Just witness Battle Blueberry and Bison! There was apparent relief from chef Spencer Carter as he let out an easy breath and smiled after the announcement.
Cackalacky Spicy Sauce with tomatoes and sweet potatoes, and Fullsteam’s ginger spiked Cackalacky Beer were the secret ingredients. Given the outlandish or unusual choices that can grace a secret ingredient challenge, this was an opportunity to be relished.
White Street Brewery of Wake Forest provided the drinking beers and a selection of North Carolina wines from across the state grazed tables. Fullsteam owner Sean Lily Wilson provided samples of Cackalacky beer to diners as well. Fire in the Triangle 2014
Both chefs took up the call with gusto, but early on there were some differences. Chef Scordo was less familiar with these products and tastings began as both teams strategized how to incorporate them into each course, make final decisions on the menu, and rush out to pull items and get started with prep. They used a good amount of herbs and greens, fresh seafood, and spiced or smoked sausages.
Team Weathervane had more red meat, to be precise. Venison tenderloins and Certified Angus Beef appeared, potatoes were curling out of a stringer steadily by sous chef Bo Peterson, and sous chef Vanessa Haydock was already starting dessert when I happened back.
Chef Carter was placidly doing a chiffonade of collard greens and selecting and stacking pans and equipment for the sous chefs. Then came the current queen of the prep line; he combined a sous vide cooking set up. Oh my. There may be differing opinions of sous vide, but as the night played out, I knew this could be pivotal.
Team Driftwood showed a tremendous amount of creativity in selecting ingredients, incorporating the secret ingredients with harmony, and presentation.
Each chef had to create three dishes, and had to use each secret ingredient in at least two of those dishes. Here's a rundown of each course, reviews and results. In each round and overall, diners (the Joes) and local media foodies including WRAL Out & About (the Pros) grade the dish on aroma, presentation, creativity and other factors. The scores listed are the final scores for each dish.
Course 1: Lobster Strudel with Andouille and Goat Cheese, Fullsteam Brewery Cackalacky Beer with a Coconut-Cackalacky Curry Sauce, Thai Pesto, Cackalacky-Pickled Corn and Shiitake Relish (Driftwood) (Score: 26.850)
I was sitting with restaurateur and chef Shane Ingram of Foursquare, Page Skelton of Cacklacky, Mac Sullivan, CEO of Pate Dawson Southern Foods, Brandon Sherrill of District Roof Top and more…the thoughts on the first dish were mixed. Texture and combination of ingredients may have thrown some, but most were impressed with the sauce and incorporation of secret ingredients.
Thoughts ranged from “Very good,” “It’s okay,” “It works,” to “What do you call this?” That is quite a spectrum for one dish. Touching tables and walking the room, this one didn’t come to the top of most diner’s listing for some reason.
Course 2: Johnston Ciounty Mangalista Prosciutto-Wrapped NC Swordfish, Sweet Potato, Tasso & Jicama Hash, Fullsteam Brewery Cackalacky Beer Romesca (Driftwood) (Score: 24.822)
I was expecting this to be a real winner, having watched them being prepared. The prosciutto and swordfish were beautiful. Unfortunately, even though the flavors were great together, some diners had dry fish and others had moist filets. This may have accounted for some spottiness in the crowd’s voting. However, the fish was still among favorites of quite few diners.
Course 3: Pastrami-Cured Venison, Fullsteam Brewery Cackalacky Beer Poached NC Egg, Cackalacky Goat Cheese Old Mill of Guilford Grits, Pickled Mustard Seeds, Crispy Collards (Weathervane) (Score: 27.895)
Composition, creativity, flavor, technique and skill came together on this plate. The venison was definitely a crowd favorite. The seasoning and preparation of the meat was tender without being over-salted, and the poached egg retained just enough of the flavor to give a reminder of the secret ingredient. Some commented that the black pepper was a bit too strong. It was spotted onto the egg instead of dusted. But still it went over well.
Also, let’s face it, we Southerners love our grits, and we love them even better if they are creamy and cheesy. It is a grits trifecta! So no made-in-the-state challenge would be complete without a nod to them somewhere. Add the just slightly acidic touch of the pickled mustard seeds and texture change of crispy collards, and one has complete plating with appetizing colors as well. Pro judges chef Shane Ingram and chef Scott James agreed with this as a favorite, and it received slightly more in the pro and ‘joes’ category than any other savory dish.
Course 4: Certified Angus Beef Brand Bistro Filet, Lobster Creamed Corn, Tomato Fullsteam Brewery Cackalacky Beer Jam, Potato Strings (Weathervane) (Score: 28.251)
The other savory crowd favorite was the Angus. At various points, I circulated to ask diners what was their favorite dish of the night so far, and some simply said “Course 4” and smiled. I know that smile. They were happy eaters! The dish had a lot of balance, the beer jam was a bit sweeter surprise, and the Potato Strings were nice and crispy. The lobster creamed corn added a touch of decadence. Deep down, people really do love meat and potatoes - tender meat and potatoes!
Course 5: Cackalacky Shortcake, Fullsteam Brewery Cackalacky Beer Lewis Farms Blueberry Sauce, Lemon Crème Fraiche (Driftwood) (Score: 22.982)
This dessert drew mixed reviews for different reasons! Some thought it was too sweet and others thought it was too acidic. What most agreed on was that it wasn’t quite what they had in mind. A few diners thought it was nice and simple, whereas others thought it lacked imagination and was too simple. Tastes really do vary and this one seemed to keep everyone on the fence. All of us, including chef Brandon Sherrill of District Roof Top Bar and Grille, had different opinions of this dessert!
Course 6: Cackalacky Hummingbird Cake, Fullsteam Brewery Cackalacky Beer Nuts (Candied), White Peach Beer Gel, Cackalacky Cream Cheese Icing (Weathervane) (Score: 30.110)
This one was a true crowd pleaser! It was comforting with a simple slice of apples and spice, pleasing with cream cheese icing and pecans, and creative with white peach beer gel. It was pretty sweet, but the elements harmonized without one flavor being too much more powerful than another. This dish got the highest points of all items on the menu for the night! Chef Shane Ingram was impressed, stating it was very good. Our table was quite happy.
Host Jimmy Crippen brandished his role as emcee like a conductor carrying his orchestra through a favorite symphony. I asked how he thought the night went and he said the night was “a little bit crazy and a lot of fun!” We certainly had a ton of fun at our table with Page Skelton from Cacklacky!
Chef Scorda’s team was somber but thoughtful. When asked if he might consider competing next year he stated that he wasn’t sure. They certainly worked quite hard and had some wonderful flavors come together!
I posed the question to Chef Spencer Carter, “How do you feel about the way things went tonight?” He laughed. “Relieved!”
Sweet win for Weathervane! They will go on to compete in the next battle on July 15th.
Fire in the Triangle is part of the Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series. The winner from the Triangle will go on to compete against the winners of the Fire on the Rock, Fire on the Dock, Fire in the Triad and Fire in the City competitions. The last chef standing wins $2,000 and the coveted red chef’s jacket. The runner-up will get $500.
WRAL's Out and About is the official blogger for Fire in the Triangle, so look for exclusive content, interviews and more from each battle!