Raleigh, N.C. — The Fourth of July started a little early for chefs and patrons at Wednesday night’s Competition Dining event. Battle number six of the first round centered on two North Carolina ingredients you’ll find at most holiday cookouts: watermelon from Bass Farms in Edenton, and two custom grinds of Certified Angus ground beef.
The two men charged with turning these picnic staples into gourmet dishes in just a few hours were Chef Adam Jones of Dean’s Seafood Grill and Bar in Cary, and Chef Peter Spear of Pup’s Steakhouse in Wilson. The two went head to head in the kitchens at 1705 Prime in Raleigh. Chef Jones competed in the first year of Fire in the Triangle then took last year off. This was Chef Spear’s first foray into the competition dining kitchen.
Each week the competition is featuring a flight of beer from a North Carolina brewery. This particular evening’s selections came from Brueprint brewery in Apex. On tap were the Pale Brue Eyes pale ale, Bruenette Brown Ale, Edinbrue Scotch Ale, and Brue Diamond IPA. Also available was a flight of North Carolina wines from Jones Von Drehle, Raffaldini, Laurel Gray, Cellar 4201 and Biltmore wineries.
Now, let's get to the food!
As always, each chef had to create three courses with their secret ingredients. The ground beef had to be in two of the courses, and the watermelon had to be in all three. The diners judge the dishes based on flavor, creativity, aroma, and use of the secret ingredients. Scores are tallied based on how regular diners vote (The Joes) and how a panel of professional judges vote (The Pros). For the first time, I had the opportunity to sit with one of the professional judges at my table, so it was a learning experience to see that side of the process. The scores listed are the final scores for each dish. Scores are out of 40 points.
And with that, let’s get to the meat (and the watermelon) of the evening!
Course 1: Chilled Bass Farms Watermelon and Jackson Farms Sprite Melon Gazpacho, Cucumber, Asian Style Certified Angus Beef Brand Bacon Blend Meatball (Pup's) (Score: 24.35)
My table had a variety of Joes and Pros this time around, and a variety of reactions to this dish. Everyone was intrigued by the use of the watermelon and cucumber in a chilled soup. The spice level of the meatballs was met with mixed reviews. I found it to be about the right heat level. Two of the diners at my table said they were a little too spicy for their tastes. Many agreed that the temperature of the meatballs could have been warmer to create a greater contrast.
Course 2: Scotch Egg with Certified Angus Beef® Brand Bacon Blend Sausage, Chilled Barley Salad, Pickled Bass Farms Watermelon, Brüeprint Scotch & Lusty Monk Mustard Emulsion (Dean's) (Score: 27.56)
In case you aren’t familiar with them, Scotch eggs are hard-cooked, wrapped in sausage, coated in bread crumbs, then baked or fried. Instead of sausage, Chef Jones used the Bacon Blend of the ground beef. It was a lofty endeavor, and won high creativity points at my table, but the execution wasn’t quite there for some of the diners. The accompaniments with the egg were flavorful and could easily stand on their own on any menu.
The plates were coming out fast and furious at this point, so there was little time to talk to individual diners about their reaction. Instead, I polled multiple tables at the end of every two courses; to see what they thought was better.
After the second course, I checked in with tables 14 and 15, and found the popular opinion in a dead heat: 10 diners preferring the first course, and 10 preferring the second. The Scotch egg tended to be the decision point, with most people saying they had never had one, but either loved it or hated it.
Course 3: Herb Certified Angus Beef® Brand Anniversary Blend Beef Cutlet, Cauliflower Purée, Tomato & Bass Farms Watermelon Ketchup (Pup's) (Score: 27.08)
The standout item in this plate was the Cauliflower Puree, by far! A diner at my table wanted to know if she could have seconds of the puree only. The cutlet, while nicely flavored, confused us a bit because it presented more like a meat loaf than like a traditional cutlet. The watermelon ketchup was also a divisive element on the plate – some could taste the watermelon, some could not.
Course 4: Certified Angus Beef® Brand Anniversary Grind Albòndigas, Heirloom Tomato Broth with Bass Farms Watermelon and Red Onion Pico, Shaved Radish (Dean's) (Score: 24.67)
Chef Jones made another creative choice, going with Cuban meatballs in this course. The rice in the meatballs was still crisp, bordering on crunchy in my dish, and turning off many of the diners at my table. The aroma of the broth stood out well, but the flavors were all relatively separate and relatively mild.
After this course, it was time to poll two more tables. This time, I began with table one, where the vote tipped overwhelmingly in favor of Course 3 by a vote of 8 to 2. Most were thrilled with the cutlet in its texture and flavor, and upon further conversation I learned this was a table of Chef Spear supporters in from Pup’s Steakhouse in Wilson. They claimed they were sure from the taste that Chef Spear was responsible for Course 3. As Competition Dining creator and host Jimmy Crippen says, “Bosses have been wrong, wives have been wrong, mothers have been wrong.” This table got it right.
Table 2 also tipped overwhelmingly in favor of Course three with another vote of 8 to 2. The overwhelming opinion at this table was that Course 4 was adventurous yet too mild for their tastes, and that Course 3 did a better job of showing off the watermelon. There was a growing discussion from a number of tables that they wished they could vote on each ingredient separately for flavor and use.
Then we left the beef behind moved on to watermelon desserts.
Course 5: Bass Farms Watermelon and Mint Panna Cotta, Candied Nuts, Cheerwine Watermelon Espuma (Pup's) (Score: 26.81)
The Cheerwine watermelon espuma added a sweet flair to a nicely executed panna cotta. The only question at our table was, “where’s the mint?” We had a hard time picking that flavor out of the panna cotta until about halfway through. Had the garnish been mint rather than mini greens, that may have inspired the other senses to seek out the mint as well.
As the final course came out to our tables, I had a moment to speak with Crippen. He said that at that point, the scores were seven-thousandths of a point apart. .007 of a point. Dessert would definitely make or break one of these chefs.
Course 6: Bass Farms Watermelon Roll with Candied Watermelon, Mint Syrup, Balsamic Reduction, Crème Anglaise (Dean's) (Score: 30.52)
The double watermelon was just the right level of sweetness. The items were plated quite nicely, but the key to unlocking the flavor was to combine them all together. The mint syrup, balsamic reduction and crème anglaise created a flavor explosion with when combined.
Looking at the scores, this was the more popular dessert of the two, however my informal survey of two more tables showed diners to be rather split. Eight diners preferred the panna cotta while nine chose the candied watermelon offering. One diner said she didn’t like either, but wouldn’t comment beyond that. A gentleman at table six (who preferred to remain nameless) offered the suggestion that the panna cotta was a better dessert overall, but he found the watermelon roll to be a better presentation of the featured ingredient.
The celebration started before the scores were read, because there were two birthdays in the room to celebrate. The crowd sang happy birthday to Chef Ref Laurence Williard as he was presented with a birthday cake, then to his surprise, Jimmy Crippen received the same treatment for his birthday earlier in the week. Then it was time to learn the scores. Fire in the Triangle 2014 Coverage
Chef Adam Jones of Dean’s Seafood Grill and Bar will be advancing to the next round.
Spear says he was just happy to be a part of the process. “I wanted to show people that Wilson is a small town, but we have good food,” he said.
Jones found the combination of ingredients to be challenging. “I thought you guys were crazy,” he said, “to pair beef and watermelon as our secret ingredients, but we tried to make it work.”
Jones will now move on to face Chef Serge Falcoz-Vigne of 518 West on July 21. What will he be doing until then?
“Practicing, lots of practicing,” Jones said. “I see lots of trips to the farmers’ market coming up in the next few weeks," Jones said.
Tickets are available for some of the upcoming battles but are going fast. The remaining dinners are nearly 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!