Depending on the amount of time you spend watching television and the Food Network, you may have come across the cooking competition Iron Chef. The show has chefs and their teams compete against each other, preparing several courses within an allotted timeframe, using secret ingredients revealed only hours before the competition. Each dish is critiqued and scored by a panel of judges. The chef with the highest score wins. While the competition is a thrill to watch, I often find myself wishing I could taste the dishes prepared by the chefs. That is, until I discovered Competition Dining.
Competition Dining is a North Carolina-centric competition between local chefs. The bracket style competition takes place across four cities: Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, and Greenville, South Carolina. The winning chefs from each city compete in a final Battle of Champions, where one chef is declared the overall winner. To win, the chefs must each prepare three courses, incorporating two secret ingredients into their dishes. One appealing aspect of the competition is that the secret ingredients only include items grown and/or produced in North Carolina and the surrounding region. From strawberries, dairy, meats, chocolate, to a whole range of produce, the competition truly highlights the breadth of the state's agriculture and food production.
Of course, the best of the evening is getting to eat and judge the three courses prepared by each chef (six in total). Each dish is served without disclosing by whom it was prepared. The audience then votes via a mobile application on a series of attributes including presentation, aroma, flavor (overall), flavor (secret ingredient), execution, creativity, use of secret ingredient, and accompaniments. To keep the scoring somewhat balanced, the competition uses a weighted scoring system of pros (culinary professionals) and joes (the rest of the audience). Scores are revealed at the end of the night and the winning team moves onto the next round.
To date, I have attended three competition dining events. The most recent one was between Chef Clark Barlowe of Heirloom Restaurant and Chef Mike Suppa of Vivace and was held at the Bonterra Dining and Wine Room.
Each dinner begins with bread from Cary's La Farm Bakery. The bread is shipped specially from the Cary, NC, bakery to the competition location and is some of the best bread I have had outside of France, thanks to the skill and talent of its Master Baker, Lionel Vatinet.
The evening also includes specialty cocktails prepared with Chapel Hill's TOPO organic spirits and beer pairings selected by the NC Beer Guys.
As the competition kicks-off, the secret ingredients are revealed to the dinner participants. For the competition between Chef Barlowe and Chef Suppa, the two ingredients were Cactus Creek Coffee and Black Mountain Chocolate. Given the versatility of these flavors, I knew I was in for a treat. And so the evening of eating and judging began...
Certified Angus Beef Strip Loin of Beef Tartar, Harissa Spiced Cactus Creek Coffee Old Mill of Guilford Grits Cake, Cauliflower Puree, Marcona Almond-Black Mountain Chocolate-Coca Nib Vinaigrette
The first course was prepared by Chef Mike Suppa and I was excited as soon as I saw mention of steak tartar as it doesn't show up on many restaurant menus. The dish was definitely popular with the joes, who gave it a higher score than the pros. Ultimately, the dish did well with a weighted score of 28.47 out of 40.
Brown Butter Poached NC Oysters, Cocoa-Coffee Roasted Leek, Apple Wood Smoked Bacon, Crawfish, Potato, Cucumber, Ran-Lew Dairy Whey-Cactus Creek Peruvian Chopicafé Coffee-Black Mountain Chocolate Cocoa Nib Broth
While the second course prepared by Chef Clark Barlowe tasted great, it struggled to grab votes. One quality I admire in Chef Barlowe's cuisine is his willingness to take risks and experiment. Unfortunately, the dish didn't perform well with the joes or the pros, leading to a weighted score of 21.29.
Seared Maple Leaf Farms Breast of Duck, Braised Duck Crepe, Lavender-Carrot Puree, Spiced Cactus Creek Brazilian Cerrado Coffee Syrup
Similar to the first course prepared by Chef Mike Suppa, the duck breast was very popular with the joes and slightly less with the pros, earning it a weighted score of 28.81. The braised duck crepe in particular, was delicious and paired well with the lavender-carrot puree.
Heritage Cheshire Pork Pork Caul Fat-Cactus Creek Brazilian Coffee and Black Mountain Chocolate Cocoa Roasted Lamb Loin, Radish, Oyster Mushroom, Farro Verde, Foie Gras-Cocoa Nib Vinaigrette, Chocolate Offal Jus
Chef Clark Barlowe's second course performed better than his first, receiving a weighted score of 24.39. One aspect of the dish that was striking was the offal jus, which was incredibly rich and flavorful.
Lemon Curd, Flaky Pie Dough Tuille, Italian Meringue, Black Mountain Chocolate Cocoa Nibs, Cactus Creek Coffee Brazilian Roast Coffee Marinated Raspberries
The desert courses were full of anticipation as the chefs made their last attempt to grab the evening's win. The joe's really enjoyed Chef Mike Suppa's desert and scored it well, while the pros gave it the lowest score of the evening, leading to a weighted score of 23.95.
Cactus Creek Coffee Tanzanian Peaberry - Black Mountain Chocolate Coca Nib Cake, Cocoa Nib-Coffee-Hickory Smoked Berries, Chocolate Ganache, Vanilla Bean Mascarpone
As the sixth and final course, Chef Clark Barlowe's desert did not disappoint. It was prepared by Heirloom's pastry chef, Ann Marie Stefaney and was by far my favorite. Two notable features of the desert were the chocolate coca nibs dispersed throughout the cake, which gave it a unique texture. The second was the hickory smoked blackberry. The smoke flavor worked perfectly with the berry's acidity combined with the richness of the chocolate and the smoothness of the vanilla bean mascarpone. It was no surprise to find that both the joes and pros scored the dish well leading to a weighted score of 29.19.
Ultimately, Chef Mike Suppa won the evening's competition and went on to compete against Chef Neil Bratton from Local Dish.
As the evening reached an end, we rejoiced at all the great food we had eaten and the fun we had meeting new people and taking part in such a fun culinary competition. Looking forward to the next season of Competition Dining's Fire in the City!