Raleigh, N.C. — It was a battle of two Competition Dining veterans - reigning Fire in the Triangle champion Dean Thompson of Flights at the Renaissance Hotel in North Hills versus the 2012 Fire in the Triangle runner-up John Childers of Herons at The Umstead Hotel and Spa.
Two outstanding chefs tasked with just one featured ingredient - North Carolina corn.
Thompson should have listened to his wife this morning when she called to tell him she had a feeling he'd be dealing with corn or honey as secret ingredients. Ashley Thompson had just seen those ingredients on a sign outside a local produce stand.
This week, Competition Dining is highlighting Lonerider Brewing Company in Raleigh. They have four beers available - Sweet Josie Brown Ale, Shotgun Betty Hefeweizen, Peacemaker Pale Ale and an Amber Ale that isn't even available to the public yet!
Now, let's get to the food!
Each chef had to create three dishes using the secret ingredient. It was a blind tasting, so no diners knew who made what. Here's a rundown of each course, reviews and results. In each round and overall, diners (the Joes) and local media foodies and chefs (the Pros) grade the dish on aroma, presentation, creativity and other factors. The scores listed are the final scores for each dish. Scores are out of 40 points.
Course 1: Little River Crab & John Hudson Farms Corn Fritter, Corn Broth, Bacon-Pepper Relish, Pickled Cucumbers, Potato Dumplings (Herons) (Score: 23.20)
This dish hit the tables before the secret ingredient was even announced. The combination of crab and corn was a hit with many diners.
Diner Karen Wellish enjoyed it saying the corn was "top-notch."
"It was so corny. It was the essence of corn," diner Jennifer Magen said.
Jamel McDuffie felt the pickled cucumbers were "overpowering."
Weathervane's Ryan Payne, the 2012 Final Fire champion, wasn't a fan saying the relish made the soup bitter.
Course 2: Black Garlic Roasted Heritage Farms Cheshire Pork Loin, John Hudson Farms Corn Pudding, Sweet Josie Brown Ale Bacon Onion Marmalade, Corn Cream (Flights) (Score: 32.510)
The highest-scoring dish of the night had several diners saying that they wanted to "lick their plates clean."
After attending several Fire in the Triangle events, McDuffie said this was the first time she ever scored a dish this high.
Whitney vonHaam told her husband not to try to make pork again because nothing could top this dish.
Payne felt the dish was perfect - from the plating to the secret ingredient.
Course 3: Certified Angus Beef® Brand Teres Major, Lobster Corn Dog, Creamed John Hudson Farms Corn, Crispy Enoki Mushroom, Parsnip Butter (Herons) (Score: 24.516)
When I interviewed Childers a few weeks ago, he told me that his favorite food was hot dogs. His mother echoed that sentiment Monday night saying that hot dogs were a cheap, easy meal for the military family so naturally Childers grew to love them.
After joking with her about corn dogs being a possible menu item, this course was served. The take on the classic corn dog was well received by many diners.
"You haven't lived til you've had a Lobster Corn Dog!" diner Alice Remedios Tweeted.
Payne felt the dish was solid, while his Weathervane colleague Spencer Carter felt the parsnip butter really took over the dish. Carter is competing in this year's Fire in the Triangle, and will battle City Kitchen on Tuesday. Spencer was scoping out his potential semi-final competition.
Overall, the dish was well-liked, but diners noted that they couldn't find the mushroom.
Course 4: Grilled Adobo Certified Angus Beef® Brand Teres Major, Dirty Risotto with Andouille & Roasted John Hudson Farms Corn; Cilantro, Tomato & Corn Relish, Chipotle Corn Purée (Flights) (Score: 27.907)
The presentation and quality of the beef in this dish varied with some diners getting less than ideal cuts.
The spiciness of the risotto and andouille was a hit with many diners. But people were still talking about course 2.
Carter and Payne noted the lack of texture in the risotto.
Course 5: Sweet John Hudson Farms Corn Custard, Coconut Lemon Poppy Seed Cake, Candied Orange, Pistachios (Herons) (Score: 20.753)
The first dessert course didn't provide the typical sweet kick Competition Diners are used to. Tom and Katie Shimshock were fans, cleaning their plates. They said all of the elements were very good when ate them together in one bite.
Eric vonHaam wasn't as big a fan, saying that the cake seemed disconnected from the entire dish.
Payne said the dish really "didn't know what it wanted to be." It was salty and savory but not sweet.
After the battle, Childers said he had never made custard in this particular kitchen before and the sometimes finicky food didn't come out the way it should have. Just two hours before the first course was to be served to diners, he made the decision to switch their original plans and go with the cake.
Course 6: Chocolate John Hudson Farms Yellow Corn Truffle Cake, Brûléed Fluff, Homemade Peanut Butter Frozen Custard, Corn Whiskey Caramel, Peanut Brittle (Flights) (Score: 29.768)
This dish was the typical dessert Competition Diners are used to.
G2B Gastropub chef Bill Harrison, a pro judge for the night, said the dish was very well executed and reminded him of s'mores.
It was the dessert winner among most diners.
Team Flights will be moving forward to the semi-finals on July 28 to face City Kitchen or Weathervane.
Thompson said he was happy with how his team executed. He noted that Childers was a tough opponent and one of the only chefs he wouldn't feel bad losing to.
Childers said he was proud of the dishes his team served and was happy to introduce diners to his style of cooking. He hoped to earn new fans for Herons.
Tickets are available for some of the upcoming battles but are going fast – Crippen estimated they are 90 percent sold 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.
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!