Competition Dining is a cooking competition here in North Carolina that is the brainchild of Jimmy Crippens. It celebrates all things food in North Carolina, pitting chefs from five regions in the state against their neighbors in a cooking competition featuring North Carolina grown, raised, or manufactured products. As Jimmy likes to say to the diners, who are also judges in the competition, “This competition is about three things: The Farmer, The Chef, and You.” On any given evening, diners blindly taste their way through six dishes – three each from two competing chefs – voting as they go in categories such as presentation, aroma, taste, and the use of the secret ingredient du jour. If you would like to know more about how the competition works from a diner’s standpoint, read the articles here and here and here.
Today, I have been granted access to the kitchens at Fire on the Dock, the Coastal region’s segment of this statewide competition. I have asked to follow two chefs through this competition from the moment they receive word on the secret ingredient until the winner is announced. Jimmy very graciously allowed me to follow two competitors who have earned their way to the semi-final rounds this year, a rematch of sorts from last year’s semi-final round between these very same toques: Chef Joshua Woo of YoSake in downtown Wilmington, and Chef Gerry Fong of Persimmons in New Bern.
There is no doubt that both of these gentleman can cook, as they have already proved by making it this far. But this competition is about a lot more than just cooking. Past battles have faced many calamities out of everyone’s control, such as cakes that didn’t rise from too-cool ovens, custards that didn’t set in warm refrigerators, and a myriad of other bumps in the road. The chefs and their teams must find a way to serve three courses to the “Joes and Pros” on time no matter what. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Having a positive attitude is one of the keys to success in competition.
This is my insider’s look at a day in the life of the chefs in this delicious Statewide Competition. Let’s get cooking, shall we?
3:00 AM: Jimmy Crippen, Emcee and Mastermind of Competition Dining, woke up and started his day, beginning with traveling from Fort Lauderdale, FL to Wilmington, NC. (He made me put this in here; I have no personal knowledge of its truthiness.)
8:00 AM: Charging the battery on my laptop. Ticking off my packing list: Laptop – check; Power cord – check; Phone (camera) charger – check; Notepad – check; Three pens – check; Tea bags – check (I never leave home without them). I think I’m all set.
I wonder what Teams Woo and Fong are up to right now? I know that they are not packing their laptops and phone chargers – these devices are prohibited for competitors. They may, however, be packing up some binders of tried and true recipes, which are permissible in the kitchens.
As for me, I’m off to my day job to make sure everything is set so that my absence will not be felt. It’s a cooking class night for us, and one of our star chefs is in the house.
10:15 AM: Pick up coffee from Port City Java; run into Chefs Josh Woo and Dan Crissey getting coffee. See you down there!
12:00 PM: Chefs assemble to get briefing and word of tonight’s secret ingredient. The chef teams share a table and wait pensively through administrative announcements, anxious to get going. Announcements include this list of basic rules:
12:10 PM: Secret ingredient is Hillsborough Cheese Company Cheeses, specifically Goat Feta, Goat Chevre, and Cow’s Milk Farmer’s Cheese. Each team has 10 pounds of each cheese. (I’m thinking that’s a lot of cheese. Sixty pounds of cheese, 120 diners – that’s a half pound each. Or maybe a pound for me and .4917 pounds for everybody else.)
12:20 PM: The teams raid the Pantry Truck provided by Pate-Dawson/Southern Foods and start pondering their menus. I notice a lot of eggs going in the Team Fong cart, and some decidedly porky looking products going upstairs with Team Woo.
12:45 PM: I feel a bit like I am in a broadcast booth at a radio station as I sit here in the southern part of the dining room that has been partitioned off to provide us with working space while the Red Hat ladies whoop it up with a luncheon on the other side (those ladies can party – they were even singing at one point!) Team Fong is on the balcony just outside the window hashing out their menu, while Team Woo works theirs out in the kitchen.
1:00 PM: Both teams are settling into the kitchen, dividing up tasks and work space as they continue to refine their menu concepts. They are playing it very close to the vest, not wanting to divulge their ideas to me yet. So instead of prying about the food, I get personal.
Chef Joshua Woo: Josh is having fun cooking with his team, but he is very focused on the food. I sense he is taking this competition very seriously. He’s all business as I try to chat him up, and we end up talking pork belly. No personal sharing today; he has a job to do. I may not be nicknamed “Chef Bacon” but I love me some pork, too. Yes, Josh, I will take a picture of the pork belly. Focused.
Chef Rebeca Alvarado Paredes: As pastry chef at manna, Rebeca has made quite a reputation for herself in her short time in Wilmington. A graduate of Johnson & Wales Pastry School and a youngun’ to this grandmother, Rebeca is nonetheless a focused professional in the kitchen who seems to truly enjoy her work. She plied me with samples. I stood closer. She knows my sweet tooth is in charge because I eat her desserts regularly; it’s an unfair advantage. Fortunately, I too am a professional and cannot be bought. Oh wait, I’m not voting. Well, even if I was, a little bit of caramel-soaked brown butter cake and a smidge of deliciously smooth, creamy panna cotta would not sway my vote. No way.
Chef Dan Crissey: Dan has worked alongside Josh Woo for many years before entering the Corporate world at Whole Foods in Wilmington as Supervisor of Prepared Foods. Dan brings a big smile and can-do attitude to Team Woo today. There was also a little story we shared about Josh in which I knew the beginning – a tasting menu with bite size food and full size drink pairings – and Dan knew the ending from later that same night. Wilmington is a small town. If you don’t know what you are doing, someone else always does.
Chef Gerry Fong: Bringing a little bit of his Chinese roots to his cooking, Gerry focuses on using local products to create modern dishes with a nod to tradition. He says it feels good to be back in the kitchen for a rematch with Josh – the pair met last year in the semi-finals of this same competition. He’s not looking ahead too far, though, saying “I’m here to have fun and put out some great food for 120 diners tonight.”
Chef Mark Turner, Executive Catering Chef for NCSU: Mark and Gerry have been friends for years, having met when working for a food service supplier years ago. He says he’s come to help his buddy cook tonight to have fun and hopefully get one battle closer to the coveted red chef jacket. He says, “Gerry is a natural; He’s extremely talented.”
Sous Chef Terrance Guion – Terrance is working as Gerry Fong’s understudy at Persimmons. Before that, he was working at Wendy’s. That transition was a short distance but a world apart. Of working with Gerry he says, “It’s great. I love my job.” He credits Gerry with teaching him what he knows about cooking and solidifying his interest in a culinary career.
2:12 PM: As the teams get focused and work on building flavors for their dishes, it seems one team is a bit ahead of the other in menu planning. Both teams have nailed down their desserts and have them well underway.
The Fong team has a clear concept of their first and second course, with cheese taking a prominent role as expected in this competition.
The Woo team seems unsure of what their first and second courses will look like, though they have decided that Pork Belly, Bacon, Pancetta, and Shrimp will be seen on the plates. With little more than an hour until their menu is due to Chef Referee Stan Chamberlin, team Woo is deferring their decisions until tasting their way through the options. So the pork belly is rendering, the shrimp are being peeled, and the bacon is staged. We shall see what becomes of this soon…the clock is ticking!
Fong Menu thus far: 1st – Trifecta of Cheese with Feta & Andouille Wonton, Arancini di Riso, and Fried Farmer’s Cheese Stick; 2nd Veal, polenta; 3rd – Lavender Goat Cheese Ice Cream
Woo menu thus far: – 1st – Ravioli? 2nd – Pork Belly w/Feta? 3rd – Goat Cheese Panna Cotta with Braised Fruit and Mixed Nut Brown Butter Cake
2:39 PM: This author can certify that the Pistachio Lavender Ice Cream is totally awesome – thanks Gerry! Shhh.
2:52 PM: Lunch arrives for the Competitors – Pulled pork sandwiches and tater tots. (Well, what did you think they eat, foie gras?)
3:01 PM: Team Woo throws in the note pad and goes back to the pantry truck to brainstorm ideas for two of their three dishes.
3:24 PM: The BlueWater Staff is polishing silverware and setting tables in preparation for tonight.
3:30 PM: Both Teams have committed to menus and are forging ahead with cooking. Team Woo is still waiting to decide on finishing touches of their platings until things are further along. Uh oh. Not a good sign.
A lot of cooking has been going on in this kitchen. Much of the preparation is complete, though many of these dishes require multiple cooking processes. The arancini from Team Wong, for instance, started as risotto traditionally begins: in a pan on the stove with liquid being gradually added whilst near-constant stirring was taking place. Now the risotto has cooled, balls are being formed, cheese is being stuffed into the middle; soon they will be breaded with panko, and eventually fried before being served. Similarly, Team Woo has seared then braised their Pork Belly, which will be served with cheesy grits cakes in a couple of hours.
5:00 PM: I am impressed with the calm in the kitchen, everyone focused on the myriad tasks before them, yet managing to smile and be courteous to each other and to me. I know they must be feeling the pressure of the clock ticking, but they are all doing a great job of keeping calm and carrying on. Consummate professionals, all. But seriously, it’s just a bit too quiet for my tastes. I think I’ll go out to the dining room – they have music playing now.
5:38 PM: Desserts are being portioned, raviolis are being par-cooked, sauces are being reduced, and all the components of the plates to be served are taking shape. Except for the sweat rolling down backs, everyone here is still cool as a cucumber. All this calm is unnerving. Why isn’t anyone freaking out? Probably because I am not competing; that would lead to some serious freaking out.
5:46 PM: The dining room has been transformed, and the wait staff is standing by.
6:00 PM: Judy Royal, official social media guru for the competitions, has arrived and is setting up her makeshift studio from which she will tweet and Facebook all the action of tonight’s battle.
6:15 PM: The guests start to arrive and are ushered into the bar while the staff fills water glasses. In the kitchen, plates are being counted and items for plating are being staged.
6:30 PM: Team Woo works out plating for their second course, gives it a taste, then takes a supervised break from the kitchen with Chef Ref Stan.
7:08 PM: The dining room is fully seated and the ceremonies get underway with Christi Ferretti and Jimmy Crippen officiating. Word has it that Christi may become the official mistress of ceremonies for Fire on the Dock next year. Wait – is Jimmy already abdicating his new career? Seems new to me, but he has been building this thing for years. Being in five places at once is exhausting, I know. Keep us posted, Jimmy.
7:25 PM: Managers appear with headsets. Chef Ref calls for service. White shirted servers line up. The first plate leaves the kitchen.
Blur. Blur. Blur.
8:12 PM: Grown man: “Is that Broccoli Rabe? It’s Yucky.” Me: “No, it’s Rappini.” Belly laughs as I think of my 8 year old grandson. Grown man’s wife says, “That’s not going to be in your article, is it?” You betcha.
Blur. Blur. Blur.
8:56 PM: h.its Tech Staff Member: “Ma’am, have you been voting this evening?” Diner: “No, was I supposed to?” More belly laughs in the staff work room.
Blur. Blur. Blur.
9:25 PM: The last plate leaves the kitchen.
9:40 PM: Chef teams are introduced and recognized. Chef moms are introduced and recognized – they are so sweet! Vote tallies are announced…no. Technical difficulties.
9:50 PM: Vote tallies are announced…and the winner is Team Fong!
As I congratulate the winners, attempt to console the losers, and rush home to let my dog out, I reflect on the day overall. All of these cooks busted their butts tonight to feed a room full of people who were judging the product of their labor. That is what this program is all about – the farmer, the chef, and the diners. In every competition there are so-called winners and losers; but winning and losing are just words assigned to describe the outcome of this game. I could see the disappointment on Chef Woo’s face, hear it in his words as he asked me – probably because I had been there all day, certainly not because I am an expert – “Where did I go wrong?” It doesn’t matter, my friend. It’s in the history books now.
This competition is indeed a game. While there is a little bit of money at stake, and recognition for the state and regional winners, it is not life; it is just a day in the life. Today both chefs will likely don their jackets and aprons and head into the kitchens that they oversee on a daily basis. There they will probably sigh in relief that they are back in their comfort zone. They will likely prepare meals for their customers, push some paperwork around, place some orders, perhaps hire or fire some staff, maybe work on crafting their menus for spring and summer since the season change is upon us. Tonight, both will go home to their families. Tomorrow they will do it all again. That is their life, not this one night in this competition. These chefs make a difference every day in the lives of their family and friends, and in the food they lovingly craft and serve to happy customers.
I hope all the competitors had some fun and will remember the funny moments, the team work, the experience. I hope Team Woo will hold their heads high and be proud of the results of their work. It’s all good, guys. Really. Thanks for letting me be there.
I think a diner last evening said it best, just before the results were announced: There are no losers here.
For the menu, pretty food pictures, and official results of Battle Hillsborough Cheese, visit this link.