If you’ve seen the show Iron Chef America on the Food Network, and I assume you have if you’re a foodie like me, then I have good news. We done growed ourselves a fancy cookin’ competition right here in North Carolina! You can attend the battles, taste the food, and be the judge. Sound interesting? Then get yourself over to the Competition Dining website and make your reservation for an upcoming event.
The competition began its life as a chef show-down with the local talent in Blowing Rock, NC. Entitled ‘Fire on the Rock’, the competition was the brainchild of Jimmy Crippens, a local restaurateur and innkeeper. As I understand it, Jimmy’s hard work and persuasive way convinced the NC Department of Agriculture and numerous key sponsors to buy into his vision to make this a State-wide competition – but don’t quote me on that. That’s just the scuttle I’ve pieced together so far. Maybe Jimmy will grant me an interview so I can check facts and get the details. For now, I’m glad it happened however it did – it’s a much needed opportunity for the many talented people manning the stoves at our burgeoning bevy of fabulous restaurants to be recognized for their talent. Plus, this is a super tasty opportunity for those of us who fancy ourselves amateur food critics. Ahem.
This growing program (pun intended) is now known as the “Got to be NC Competition Dining Series” of which ‘Fire on the Rock’ is the first round of competition, held in February and March in Blowing Rock. I am told the final battle is April 11th at Crippens where the champion will be determined (don’t bother, it’s sold out). Added to the series for the first time this year are: ‘Fire on the Dock’ based in Wrightsville Beach hosting competitors from Coastal NC restaurants, happening right now in April and May; ‘Fire in the Triangle’ based in Raleigh, hosting battling chefs from the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area in June and July; and ‘Fire in the Triad’ based in Greensboro, with chefs from the Greensboro-Winston Salem-High Point region going head to head in August and September. I thought I heard that there will be a final battle amongst the regional winners for an overall State Championship. We’ll await confirmation of that from the powers that be. Road trip, anyone?
For the uninitiated, the NC Department of Agriculture has programs to support growers and other food purveyors in the state entitled “Got to be NC” and “Goodness Grows in NC.” Hence the title of the competition series and my article, respectively.
Each of these regional competitions sports 15 individual battles from which you can choose. This is a pyramid competition, so the winners of the initial 8 rounds compete against each other in the ensuing 4 battles with the top two competing for the regional title in a 15th and final round. Perhaps a few of you can afford to attend an entire series, but at $49 plus tax and a 20% automatic gratuity ($62.11 in my neck of the woods) per person, per event, it is beyond my budget to attend them all. Trust me, I wish I could. Even the dishes that weren’t winners were interesting and pretty good eats all things considered. But I digress.
So you can go to the website, find out when your favorite restaurant chef is competing, and reserve a seat to cheer him or her on. If you are adventurous like me, you can attend on a night when you do not know the chefs or their restaurants – that was great fun and good food. You can watch a video introduction to many of the chefs, or at least read a quick bit about them. You reserve and pay directly on the website using PayPal or your credit card. Easy peasy.
Attending the Battles
The individual competitions are great fun – dramatic music, video presentations, and Jimmy himself as your emcee. He’s quite the character, so I’m sure you’ll enjoy him. Each battle entails six courses, three from each chef competitor. The secret ingredient is revealed to the competitors at noon on the day of the battle, and their creativity is limited to a pantry provided by sponsors, primarily Southern Foods, a wholesale purveyor of food. The secret ingredient must be featured in every dish they prepare, and all the secret ingredients are North Carolina products. Thus far
during Fire on the Dock, we have seen Flounder, Cheerwine, Bison, and Curry – yes CURRY made in NC – used as secret ingredients. Up at Fire on the Rock, they had battles with mustard, lavender & cinnamon, catfish, sturgeon, beef, grits, purple sweet potatoes, and whole mess of other unexpected ingredients – even guinea fowl!
If you go, you just don’t know what you might be eating – vegetarians are forewarned! If you have food allergies, you can let them know when you reserve on the website, and every effort will be made to accommodate you. I’m sure Battle Peanut is coming up sometime – or maybe they plan to skip that one due to the prevalence of allergies these days. Time will tell, or maybe Jimmy will. For me, I’m all about some peanuts. Grass – think yard here people, nothing with an M – that’s my allergy. So I think I’m all set.
For those that imbibe, there is a full cash bar available as well as samples of featured wines provided at your table. So get you a cocktail – it’ll keep you busy during the preliminaries. You will have time between courses to stretch your legs – sometimes 5-10 minutes, sometimes a bit more. If you go to one of the Fire on the Dock events at Shell Island on Wrightsville Beach, take this opportunity to step out back and enjoy the ocean views. But don’t stray too far…it won’t be long until the next course is served!
You will check in and be escorted to your assigned seat, which seems to be part of some master plan. It must be top secret, because I have no clue why they sat me where they did either time. I ended up next to a friend I hadn’t seen in a while the last time, and that was mighty fine with me. If you want to be seated with friends, put that in the information box when reserving online and it will happen.
Do remember that this is fine dining. Appropriate attire is, well, appropriate.
You – Diner & Judge
This is a very well thought out event, folks. The voting is high tech with low tech options available. If you like paper and pen, they have that – a ballot is at each seat. The event staff will enter your votes for you throughout the evening. If you have a smart phone, there is an app for that – yup. And they are thoughtful enough to have a free Wi-Fi connection set up for your use. I can imagine this keen organization being an experiential development, with an underlying theme such as, “Let nothing interfere with the voting or we’ll be here until midnight.”
Somewhere during your initiation you find out the judging is blind. You will not watch them cook, and you will not know which dish is whose until the votes are tallied. It’s only fair, really. I don’t know about the rest of the state, but we have some serious chef fans here on the coast who would mob one of these events and unfairly tilt the competition in their beloved’s direction if they knew who made what. I’m just sayin’.
So they talk you through getting all set up with the voting process, and a bit about how to score. You get some obligatory talking-to from the sponsors and vendors (we enjoyed a kitchen fire safety talk from the New Hanover County Fire Department, among others), and finally an introduction to each of the competitors by Jimmy. But see the chefs you will not until the end – they are busy fixin’ to feed you and tryin’ to win this thing!
Food begins to arrive from the kitchen and everyone casts their votes. You judge each dish in five categories with a maximum of five points per category, or 30 points total per dish. Zero is inedible, five is superior. The categories are Presentation, Aroma, Taste – and with regard to the secret ingredient specifically – Creativity, and Execution. As you will be warned, it is useless to try to guess which dish was made by your favorite chef – Jimmy likes to say “even wives have been wrong” – so just judge each dish on its merits. The true winner will emerge. If it is not your guy or gal, it’ll be OK. You can still go to their restaurant every Friday.
The entertainment continues throughout with Jimmy at the helm – regaling you with tales, and introducing pre-recorded video interviews of the chefs. I thought it a nice touch, since we could not see the action in the kitchen, even though I had watched the videos on the website. When the dining is happening in earnest, there is soft music with the occasional rumblings of the theme from “Rocky,” which is played at much higher volumes at beginning and end. Oh yeah. Mood music.
Finally, with the votes tallied, the competitors emerge from the kitchens with their teams (one in-house kitchen and one tractor trailer kitchen are used). Introductions are made, post-battle reflections are shared, and the ‘who-made-what’ begins. Once the winner is announced, it’s pandemonium. Fight the crowds to congratulate the winner, or make your way home. Ladies and gentleman, it’s a wrap.
By the way, if you were wondering about that bar tab that you ran up, it’s all good. Your server has already collected your payment somewhere back around the fifth course. See? This is a well-oiled machine. Check the website tomorrow morning for pictures, including action shots from the kitchen. Follow the competition on Twitter @CompDiningNC or like them on Facebook for more comments, pictures, and course by course action during events.
Go on, make the reservation. It’s a blast if you are into good food, fancy yourself a kitchen smarty like me, or just need a good meal and want to try something new.