Raleigh, N.C. — In the first round of the Fire in the Triangle semi-finals, two chefs brought on the heat in an intense culinary battle.
Chef Jason Cunningham of the Washington Duke Inn took on Chef Dean Thompson of Flights in a battle that truly came down to the last two courses. Their secret ingredients? North Carolina shrimp from the Wanchese Fish Company, and Cackalacky Spice Sauce, made here in Chapel Hill.
My fellow diners at 1705 Prime and I didn't have very much time to ponder what that combination could mean for our six courses to come. Competition Dining founder Jimmy Crippen had to speed up his introductions before the first plates came out. “I told the chef refs 7:30, and the food started coming out at 7:25,” Crippen said.
That meant each chef had less than 5 hours from the time they learned the secret ingredients to plan and prepare three dishes each for 130 diners. Each chef had to use the shrimp in two of the three courses, and the Cackalacky sauce in two of the three courses. They did not have to be the same courses.
White Street Brewing Company brought two of their beers to complement the evening's ingredients: their Kolsch-Style Ale for those who like a crisp beer with hints of fruit, and their Scottish Ale for patrons who prefer a malty spice in their glass. Juice Wine Purveyors brought Lesse-Fitch Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio for the pairings as well.
Here's a rundown of each course, reviews and results. In each round and overall, diners (the Joes) and local media foodies (the Pros) grade the dish on aroma, presentation, creativity and other factors. All scores are out of a possible 30 points.
Course 1: Gingered Cackalacky Sweet Potato and Carrot Bisque, Spicy Cackalacky Braised Cheshire Pork, Grilled Asian NC Shrimp, Toasted Sesame Seeds, Green Onion & Cilantro Salad (Flights) (Score: 21.56)
I must admit, I sat with a very discriminating set of diners at Table 20. One of whom, who asked that I not use her name, quickly blurted out that this dish looked like something she would do at home. The flavors, though, were much more nuanced than you would find on most Triangle dinner tables. The Cackalacky came through quite nicely in the bisque, but for many diners, the star of this plate was the bed of pulled pork.
Steve Frey and Nancy Leaver of Pittsboro were especially intrigued with the shrimp. “The way the chef used the Asian spicing tastes delicious alone, and when you mix the flavors with the other items on the plate.” Leaver added, “The color, the balance of flavors, it was all simply wonderful.”
Course 2: Grilled NC Shrimp, Cackalacky Grits, Herb Shrimp Bisque, Sweet Jackson Farms Cantaloupe and Fennel Salsa (Washington Duke Inn) (Score: 18.69)
At first glance, this dish was presented in a very similar fashion to the dish we had just eaten. Then I took a bite. The flavors played together in a much different way. The herbs in the shrimp bisque stood out, the grits provided a delicious contrast to the flavors, and the cantaloupe and fennel salsa really left its mark on the palate. One problem we did have was temperature. Sitting at the last table to be served, both of our first dishes arrived at the table lukewarm. In this dish, that meant the salsa wasn't quite as cold as it could have been.
One thing many diners noted was the tails were still on the shrimp, adding a layer of difficulty to eating the dish given that they were served in the bisque. Celebrity Judge and WRAL Anchor/Reporter Ken Smith said, “The first dish was simply user-friendly, meaning I didn't have to fight to eat the shrimp. The second dish threw me off, between the melon and the tails, but the grits were fantastic.”
The second dish drew better reviews from the rest of the people sitting with Ken at Table 18. Mike Ferris of Chapel Hill said the second dish did a better job of tying the flavors together in his mind, and the textures as well. Competition Dining went international with one of the other diners at the table. Michael Maier is visiting from Austria. He said he found the second dish resulted in a better blend of flavors and textures, more like something a chef would play with back home.
Course 3: Cackalacky Chicken Fried Shrimp, Andouille Polenta Cake, Succotash, Cackalacky Roasted Tomato Chimichurri, Cackalacky NC Shrimp Cream (Flights) (Score: 20.58)
Breading the shrimp and frying it was a genius idea. A nod to a Southern staple, it still meant the shrimp was perfectly cooked. Even Jimmy Crippen was looking for more when the dinner was over. The andouile polenta cake was a well-crafted complement to shrimp, and the succotash introduced some lighter flavors into what was quickly becoming a heavy meal.
Diners were too busy eating this dish to want to comment on it. After the fact, the two most common comments on this plate were, “Yum!” and “Where was the Cackalacky?” A few diners did comment that the chimichurri was a little warm for their tastes. I'm glad they weren't in the house for Battle Texas Pete!
Course 4: Cackalacky Bacon-Wrapped Bistro Filet, Crispy Tasso NC Shrimp Cake, Andouille Shrimp Hollandaise, Cackalacky Cabbage Slaw (Washington Duke Inn) (Score: 22.00)
The star of this plate, by far, was the shrimp cake. “This shrimp cake should be on somebody's menu if it's not already,” Ken Smith said. “It's spectacular!”
The tough critics dining with me at Table 20 found the filet overcooked, and cold when it reached us in the back corner of the room. They were split on the slaw – one woman called it “offensive to her tongue as a born and raised Carolina girl.” I found it refreshing and a great use of texture, and just so you know, I usually dislike slaws.
The guys at Table 14, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy this dish. The five men at the table were at Fire in the Triangle as a guys' night out. Two of them said the fourth course was their favorite so far, two said the second course was tops on their lists, and one said simply, “My favorite course was the White Street Kolsch.”
When I returned to my seat after making the rounds of the room, my table was still obsessing over the ingredient in the slaw that had turned off the native Carolina girl.
Course 5: Sweet Potato Cackalacky S'more, Spiced Dark Chocolate and Sweet Potato Cake Truffle, Marshmallow Meringue, Graham Cracker Ice Cream, Cackalacky Caramel Graham Tuille (Flights) (Score: 23.25)
Reading this description, it screams, “delicious decadence” to me. I was not disappointed. I followed some of the servers around as they carried the desserts to their tables for this course. As each table received their plates, you could hear them add to the growing murmur in the room of “No shrimp. There's no shrimp in this dessert.”
For some it was a relief. “I didn't want to get a shrimp ice cream sundae,” said Priya Patel of Chapel Hill. Mike Ferris suggested, “Someone can bottle that Cackalacky Caramel cause it would sell. I'd love to have had more on the plate.”
He had a point. The caramel was the first stand-out use of the Cackalacky sauce for me, and it created a spiced effect that was perfect with the marshmallow and the truffle. The tough critics at Table 20 even gave this dessert a nod, saying that it was “the first thing we've had that I would buy at a restaurant.”
Course 6: Coconut NC Shrimp Custard, Cackalacky Guava Coulis, Salted Peanut Crumble, Raspberry Caramel, Orange Coriander Shortbread. (Washington Duke Inn) (Score: 19.55)
Given where we were sitting, we had plenty of time to read this description and ponder the age-old question of “just what will a shrimp custard taste like?” One diner at my table was quite concerned it would be inedible. All that worry was for nothing. The Shrimp custard was the perfect texture, delicious, and not at all fishy. Concerns over the amount of fruit on the plate were quickly put to rest as well. Cantaloupe, guava and orange each enhanced their specific parts of the plate, and made the whole greater than the sum of its culinary parts.
During the dinner, I checked in with nearly every table, and my informal poll sounded like it was going to be a close vote. Very few people had one standout dish that blew them away – most narrowed it down to two choices. Others consulted their Competition Dining App to see which dish they had scored the highest when they couldn't choose.
So it didn't surprise me when Crippen announced that, going into dessert service, less than a half a percentage point separated the two chefs. The decision not to use shrimp in the final course appeared to sway the voters and give Chef Dean Thompson of Flights the win.
“Shrimp just didn’t work in dessert,” Chef Dean Thompson said after the festivities. “Fish is the one thing, the one meat, that if we had the choice not to use it, I wouldn’t use it (in dessert). I knew the Pros would hit me, but I hoped the Joes wouldn’t care.”
In fact, the deconstructed s’more that swayed the numbers nearly didn’t happen. “It was hot and humid in the kitchen,” Thompson pointed out. “We were cooking and peeling shrimp for hours, and all the humidity messed with my meringue. I almost had to try something else.”
Chef Jason Cunningham of Washington Duke Inn and Golf Course took a different approach. “I was stubborn in that I had my mind made up to use all the ingredients in all three courses, even before we knew what they were,” Cunningham said. “He chose to do something that you couldn’t go wrong with, and we may have been a little too adventurous.”
“Even so, we worked really hard this evening,” Cunningham said. “We showcased the ingredients in every course, and the Washington Duke Inn will be back for next year’s competition if Competition Dining accepts us.”
“These two chefs showcased the ingredients better than I’ve seen at a lot of the battles,” said Crippen. “As you get closer to the finals, though, the cuts get harder. You get to know these guys and it’s hard to see one of them leave.”
The second round of the semi-finals are this evening at 1705 Prime. The winner will face Chef Dean Thompson of Flights on Monday night. Thompson says he won’t share his strategy in the kitchen, but his team is going for it all.
“Our goal was to make the semi-finals,” Thompson said, “but once you get there, you can smell the red jacket. I can’t wait until Monday night.”