Raleigh, N.C. — Chapel Hill...a town where blood runs Carolina blue and rivalries run deep. Tuesday night, one of those rivalries spilled over into the Competition Dining kitchen.
This match up has so many layers, you could peel it like an onion. Let's start with the chefs themselves. Chef Spencer Carter of Weathervane is no stranger to Competition Dining. He was part of the team that won Final Fire in 2012 working with Chef Ryan Payne. His competitor, chef Younes Sabouh of City Kitchen, is competing for the first time. He won his first round challenge against the Oxford's Chef Christopher Hill without tasting any of the food he served, because he was observing the fast for Ramadan.
Some chefs enter the Competition Dining kitchen as strangers. Not these gentlemen. Their restaurants are next to each other in Chapel Hill's University Mall. Weathervane is part of A Southern Season, while City Kitchen opened up right next door two years ago.
There's enough back story that this throw down of culinary talent is begging for a name. “The Thrilla on the Hill-a,” perhaps? West (of the Triangle) Side Story? Battle: Bragging Rights? All appealing, and even punny, but the name that says it all is “Battle: Corn, Part Deux."
For the second night in a row, Competition Dining organizers gave the chefs John Hudson Farms Corn as their featured ingredient. Organizer Jimmy Crippen said, “One of the chefs was here the night before, and you could see his brain start churning, trying to figure out what hadn't been done yet.”
Fire in the Triangle 2014 Some patrons had been in attendance both nights as well. And then, there was Courtney Carter. When the ingredient was announced, she tweeted, “Ok, seriously #CompDiningNC! Am I being punked, 3 years in a row, I've managed to pick CORN night!!” Carter and her husband, Brad, were sitting with a table full of friends, many of whom said Courtney is no longer allowed to buy the seats so that they might get some variety next year.
This week's featured North Carolina beer came from Lonerider Brewing here in Raleigh. Diners could choose from three standards – the Shotgun Betty, the Sweet Josie Brown, the Addie's Revenge IPA – and a new Eve's Amber Ale that has yet to hit stores. I would recommend it when you can find it, as the spicy hops paired nicely with all four of my savory courses.
Speaking of which, let's move on to the meal!
Since there was only one secret ingredient, the chefs had to use it in all three courses. Each course was served as a blind tasting to the 15 tables. Diners (the Joes) and local media foodies and professional chefs (The Pros) grade the dish on a number of factors, including aroma, presentation, flavor, use of the secret ingredient, and creativity. Scores displayed below are based on a perfect score of 40.
The evening began about a half hour behind schedule. Rain and a significant traffic mess on I-40 delayed a number of diners from the 7:30 serving time. “The chefs were quite accommodating,” Crippen said. “All they asked was that we give them 20 minutes’ notice before the first course needed to go out.”
Course 1: Seared NC Fish Connection Hybrid Striped Bass, Yucca Mousse, John Hudson Farms Corn & Little River Crab Meat, Smoked Tomato & Fennel Broth (City Kitchen) (Score: 27.34)
When this course rolled out of the kitchen, diners were prepared to dig in. Every element of the course was piping hot, something I wasn't sure would happen given the delay in starting service. The corn and crab blended well together; however, it did get lost a bit visually in the yucca mousse.
Within a few bites, my entire table agreed that the striped bass was the low point of this course. Some didn't like the preparation that left the skin on the fish, while others felt it wasn't seasoned to their liking. The accompaniments, however, had them raving long after course two hit the table,
Course 2: NC Flounder, Crispy Rice, John Hudson Farms Corn & Almond Ragout, Orange-Saffron Emulsion (City Kitchen) (Score: 23.24)
Pause for a moment, and look at the pictures provided of courses one and two. See how similar they appear? As servers placed the plates before us, our table was already engaged in the great guessing game of Competition Dining: “Whodunit?” The courses were so similar, from the fish to the use of the corn, to the plating, we came to the conclusion that the same chef was behind both of these dishes, even if serving two nearly identical dishes didn't seem to make sense to us.
This dish met with much criticism at my table. The saucing was uneven, with some plates nearly drowning in the orange-saffron emulsion, while others didn't even have enough to taste. Luckily, most people at the table knew each other, so they didn't mind sharing bites to get a taste of all the flavors meant to be on the plate. Steve Jourdain of Raleigh had extra emulsion on his plate, and thoroughly enjoyed the course, until he sampled from a plate with none. “The orange makes all the difference in tying these flavors together,” he said. “Without the orange, it tastes like two different meals.”
The other problem with this dish was the sticky rice on which the flounder was served. Throughout the evening, diners commented they were still finding rice stuck in their teeth. The flounder, however, was prepared perfectly. The diners at table 7 decided that had the flounder been paired with the rest of course one, it would have been a formidable dish that would have been hard to beat. As it was, however, course two received a few single digit scores at our table.
Course 3: John Hudson Farms Sweet Corn & Chili Marinated Heritage Farms Cheshire Pork Tenderloin, Pulled Pork Butt, Creamed Corn Grits, Pickled Corn & Bacon Relish, Charred Tomato-Corn Butter (Weathervane) (Score: 28.56)
This course was a favorite across the dining room. The three different treatments of pork, each with its own complementary use of the secret ingredient, left mouths watering and some asking for seconds.
“This is why you go out to eat,” said Kathy Barker of Raleigh. “You can't blend flavors like this at home, or at least I can't.”
David Sullivan of Raleigh said, “the aroma was wonderful, the pork tenderloin and pulled pork were just right, and you can't go wrong with bacon, right?” At which point, fellow diner Brent Taylor chimed in with, “the only thing that would make this dish better would be to eat it at the WRAL Sand Desk.”
Even after the entire meal was complete, diners were still reminiscing about the blending of flavors and textures in this course.
“Course three was the best execution and best integrated work of the night,” said Blair Johnson of Raleigh. “The textures of the meats, the use of barbeque, and the flavors of the sweet corn made that the most well-rounded dish I ate this evening.”
Course 4: Grilled Certified Angus Beef® Brand Bistro Steak, John Hudson Farms Sweet Corn Potato Salad, Roasted Shiitakes, Sweet Corn & Asparagus Chimichurri (Weathervane) (Score: 22.026)
Where the pork trio allowed chef Carter to shine, the bistro steak disappointed diners a bit. Temperature issues began to plague the chefs, as the two pieces of steak were two different temperatures: one hot and one warm only where it was in contact with the hot slice. The beef itself was quite flavorful and was prepared nicely. This was the point in the night, however, when the servers were trying to make up for the late start, and my plate was gone before I could finish sampling it all.
Other diners at my table were not impressed with the size of the potatoes in the potato salad, and a lack of chimichurri flavor, even though that was one of the uses of the secret ingredient.
The corn was so hard to spot that Steve Jourdain suggested that “Perhaps the corn is in the cow... was it 'corn-fed beef'?” That dissatisfaction with the secret ingredient seemed to reflect in the scores – this dish received the lowest score of the night.
Course 5: John Hudson Farms Corn & Crème Fraîche Cheesecake, Corn Pecan Crumble, Corn Brown Butter Bourbon Ice Cream (City Kitchen) (Score: 27.53)
As we waited for the fifth course to come out of the kitchen, we speculated on what form corn would take in these desserts. The description of the course caused a divide in the diners at my table – those who wanted to see chocolate in their dessert and those who were fine with a more savory option.
After trying the cheesecake, Rhonda D'Urso of Raleigh put down her spoon. “It's nowhere near sweet enough for dessert,” she said. “It needs flavor, but at the very least, it needs a drizzle of honey to help it out.”
Joanne Gehas liked the ice cream, but wanted more of it. “The ice cream is so good, but the serving is so small, and when you run out of ice cream, its very hard to eat the rest.” Both women left much of the dessert on their plates.
Steve Jourdain said the small scoop of ice cream played with the temperature of the dish. “The ice cold of the ice cream helps it,” he said, “but once that's gone, the rest is room temperature.
“It wasn't worth the calories in my body,” he said, a comment quickly seconded by Kathy Barker.
Course 6: Bad Penny Brown Ale Chocolate & John Hudson Farms Corn Cake, Sweet Corn Semifreddo, Sweet Corn Cream Cheese Icing, Candied Corn & Cashews (Weathervane) (Score: 26.879)
Team Chocolate got their wish in course six, but their joy was short-lived. Many found the cake didn't have enough chocolate to satisfy their palettes, some also said it was too dry, and the cream cheese icing was too cloying. As someone who doesn't enjoy cream cheese icing, however, I found the sweetness level to be about right. In fact, the glass of blueberry wine from Adams Vineyard and Winery was sweeter than both desserts combined.
Overall, the diners at my table were surprised by what they didn't see. They expected a corn and squash souffle, fritters, corn bisque, or even something with a Mexican influence. In the end, Rhonda D'Urso summed it up by saying, “Corn is such a simple ingredient that you need to keep the dish simple, but that doesn't mean you can't have fun with it,”
This contest was one of the closest in the three years of Competition Dining. Chef Younes Sabouh advances to the next round by a mere two tenths of a point.
“The kitchen was a very serious place today,” Crippen said after the scores were revealed. “That neighborhood rivalry seemed to be playing into the dynamics, and it kept things close. Between courses four and five as votes kept coming in, we were within five one-hundredths of a point. We just kept hitting refresh on the app that tabulates the scores, and watching in amazement.”
“We had two creative chefs serve six great dishes tonight with a unique strategy,” Crippen said. “They fooled us all...even had me wondering who did what. The dishes looked just similar enough, but just different enough that I couldn't tell. Would one chef cook two fish to try to throw off votes? Would one chef cook two meats? It was a great night.”
Chef Sabouh will now meet chef Dean Thompson of Flights on July 28th. “Chef Sabouh is a new guy in this competition with some serious talent,” Crippen said. “He doesn't check out his competition, but he may want to change that strategy. Dean has been averaging scores in the 30s for each course this year.”
Sabouh says he's done thinking about Competition Dining, at least for now. “My plan is to get some rest,” he said after the match. “I don't plan to think about this until the morning of the 28th. Then I'll take the ingredient I'm given, and do my best work on that day with that ingredient. It's what I do.”
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!