Raleigh, N.C. — The Fire in the Triangle competition kicked off week two with a true Southern flair – the secret ingredients were fresh corn from John Hudson Farms and Old Mill of Guilford stone ground grits!
After last week's ingredients, which included Krispy Kreme doughnuts and Videri chocolate, it was good to return to simple ingredients and watch the chefs work their magic. In this battle, Chef Dean Thompson of Flights at the Renaissance squared off against Chef James Clark of Carolina Crossroads at The Carolina Inn.
Diners eagerly streamed into the dining room with wine from Juice Wine Purveyors and beer from this week's partner, Carolina Brewing Company. After hearing the secret ingredients, we all knew this would be a great battle. With Thompson's local ties and previous competition experience (he had actually thought about and prepared for grits as a secret ingredient) and Clark's love of Southern food (he told me he loves grits and eats them every day), this battle would come to a close finish.
Thompson said he felt good when he saw the secret ingredients. "I just went right in there and started working," he said. Things apparently got a little crazy in the kitchen – he accidentally cooked one cake too few! – but his team was able to push through.
The Carolina Crossroads crew took a consistent approach. "We planned on sticking to what we do, and simplicity will prevail," Clark said.
The crowd was upbeat and full of energy, and the excitement was contagious. Jimmy Crippen, the owner of Competition Dining and emcee of the evening, said he was pleased with the evening's diners.
"They were excited and got crazy, but they were attentive when it came to the chef bios and other messages," Crippen said.
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. All scores are out of a possible 30 points.
Course 1: Warm Yellow Corn Bisque, Yellow Corn Grits Fritter, Grilled Shrimp Chimichurri, Braised Bacon (Flights) (Score: 22.04)
The bisque was very light and the shrimp was cooked and seasoned perfectly. One of my table-mates said some fresh bread would have been great to scoop up the rest! Unfortunately, the bisque was barely warm.
Course 2: Silver Queen Bisque, Seared Roasted Poblano Grits Cake, Smoked Duck & Cracklings (Carolina Crossroads) (Score: 21.56)
Clark used a different type of corn for this bisque, which resulted in a heavier consistency. It wasn't as sweet as the first bisque, but the grits cake was yummy and almost like a polenta. One of my fellow judges liked the dish, but felt that "the smoked duck didn't mesh well."
Course 3: Pork & Corn Duo, Lobster & Crab Cake, Heirloom Tomato Relish, Romesco, Brown Ale Pork Butt, Sweet Chili Ginger Glazed Cocoa Pork Belly, Corn Ragout, Cheddar Parsnip Grits Puree (Flights) (Score: 22.18)
There was so much going on with this plate, it was almost two dishes in one! My table agreed that it had a good amount of spice, and the pork belly was cooked so well. Fire in the Triangle: Flights vs. Carolina Crossroads
Course 4: Seared Mahi Mahi, Caramelized Onion & Andouille Grits, Crab, Heirloom Tomato & Corn Relish, Basil Emulsion (Carolina Crossroads) (Score: 22.25)
This was one of my personal favorites of the night. The mahi was cooked to perfection, and the andouille grits added the right kick. Some diners from the next table over felt the dish had some heat but lacked seasoning.
"The fish itself was cooked very well, to the perfect temperature, but it could use some more seasoning," said Candy Hughes and Hansel and Pamela Bosart.
Course 5: Vanilla Corn Cake, Grits-Honey-Thyme Ice Cream, Whiskey Milk Chocolate, Peanut Bacon Brittle, Charred Corn (Flights) (Score: 22.48 – highest scoring dish of the night)
The desserts are typically crowd favorites at these events, and this corn cake didn't disappoint. While the ice cream did contain grits (a complete contradiction), it was actually pretty smooth and yummy. I liked it best when combined with the peanut bacon brittle.
Mark Heath of Carolina Brewing Company remarked that he "needed about 40 pounds of this brittle." It was that good!
Course 6: Roasted Corn Pound Cake, Mascarpone Grits Pudding, Lemon Pickled Blueberries (Carolina Crossroads) (Score: 14.84)
This was one dish that proved every plate matters.
"One dish will make you or break you," said Crippen.
The pound cake was very dry and I heard another diner say that the blueberries with lemon were too tart.
In the end, Thompson of Flights and his crew were able to defeat Clark and his team from Carolina Crossroads by almost three points. The Fire in the Triangle website has more information on how scores are calculated.
It was a very tight race until the last course, where Clark's roasted corn pound cake just wasn't up to par.
"We missed the mark on the pound cake," Clark said. "I'm disappointed, but I hope to come back next year."
Crippen pointed out that when cooking under pressure in these foreign conditions, anything can happen. Hopefully the team from Carolina Crossroads will participate in Fire in the Triangle 2014 to try again!
Thompson will go on to the next round and battle Chef Falcon-Vigne of 518 West on July 30.
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!
Owner and emcee Crippen said that all the kinks have been worked out in the first week, so now the competition should go by smoothly, if you're attending a battle in the coming weeks.
"We adjusted the speakers, so now the sound isn't coming out at ear-level," Crippen said. "The kinks are all worked out."
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.