Battle Sriracha Cha!: Kirsten’s Curry Steals the Show

4 02 2014

I struggled with how to approach this dispatch, especially since I have a little friendly competition of sorts from my new friend Cole Dittmer of the Lumina News.  While we are not being judged for our literary prowess – or at least I’m not (I don’t have an editor and I’m not being paid), we are both writing articles about tonight’s festivities at the regional cooking competition Fire on the Dock, part of the Competition Dining series here in North Carolina.  Our articles are both behind-the-scenes looks at the competition, and to be fair to the competitors we divided our efforts.  Cole’s work will focus on Chef Katie Carter and the team from Olive Café and my article concentrates on Chef Kirsten Mitchell and Team 1900 Restaurant & Lounge.

I am sure that Cole’s article will be professional and politically correct and studded with beautiful photography and the epitome of ethical journalism.  I thought about trying to emulate that style myself, or writing another seemingly endless blow-by-blow like I did last year.  Frankly, I am not happy with either of those approaches.  So I’m just going to do what I want here and tell you about the food.  I am all about the food, my neighbors, and all things North Carolina.

I want to tell you about some exciting NC products and innovations being featured at the Competition Dining events (like the brand new Sriracha Cha! sauce from the makers of Texas Pete and some of the wines), but it will have to wait for another post as it is now past 1:00am and I have my own cooking to do in the morning.  I need sleep and you need to know about the well-deserved win experienced by the team from 1900 Restaurant & Lounge tonight.

This was the 7th event I have attended in three years, and the 2nd at which I have foregone voting in favor of full access behind the scenes.  For sheer fun, nothing can compare to being in the kitchen with Gerry Fong of Persimmons in New Bern – last year’s winner of Fire on the Dock.  Gerry is a perpetually happy guy whose glass is always full and his joie de vivre is contagious.  Today’s kitchen was subdued by comparison, but the food was anything but muted.  Today was all about watching a hard-working woman have a well-deserved moment of success and recognition.

For third-generation-chef Kirsten Mitchell, it all came together on the plate today.  Kirsten didn’t just do well tonight, she rocked it.  I had a good feeling about the outcome from the first 20 minutes after learning the secret ingredient, when I sat and listened as she and her team developed their menu.  Like a good leader, she listened to her crew and considered their ideas.  Then she got out her pen and wrote the menu without hesitation.  She had some ideas in reserve in the event that certain ingredients weren’t available, but she went with her gut and was decisive.  Indecision is a leading cause of flops in these battles, so I was relieved to see her charge ahead.  Cut throat.  You go, girl!

Like most all of these events, this one was not without its ups and downs.  New equipment was available tonight that was not offered at prior competitions, courtesy of Denver Restaurant Equipment Company.  Kirsten homed in on the immersion circulator immediately, creating the first sous vide dish in Fire on the Dock History with huge success (Cha! Marinated Lamb Loin).  Her introduction to the awesome power of the Vitamix machine made for a colorful swath of green curry sauce on the wall a la Jackson Pollock.  Old equipment failed to function properly, including an oven that was, oh, about 100 degrees too hot for pound cake – fortunately, there was time to bake again.

At one point, Team 1900 broke out in song, which I learned is a regular occurrence in their restaurant kitchen.  I am going to have to walk across the parking lot more often so I have someone to sing with, and also to use their fryer to make some of the awesome skin-on plantain chips that I learned from Kirsten tonight.  I have had lots of tostones, and made them a few times myself.  I’ve even had them in Puerto Rico and Jamaica where plantains grow.  But I have never had a deep fried plantain chip with the skin on like Kirsten made tonight – sliced lengthwise on a mandolin and fried immediately, adorned only with a touch of salt.  I love it when Kirsten’s Bahamian upbringing influences her cooking – that’s when her food is at its best.

Cha Lamb Despite the North Carolina ingredients, her entrée tonight had the Caribbean written all over it with this show-stealing, vote-catching, competition-crushing, runaway hit:  Texas Pete Sriracha Cha! Marinated Lamb Loin Sous Vide served with Green Curry “Mofongo” (roasted sweet potato & parsnip mash), and garnished with a Plantain Chip and Sautéed Brunoise of Peppers.  That’s what I’m talking about, Kirsten.  Mm. Mm. Mm.

The Collard Soup was genius; it never occurred to me to make a pureed soup from collard greens.  I thought eating them raw in a salad was stepping out of the box.  Ha!  The tasso ham bits and all that jazz was nice, but the soup was awesome by itself. Let me know when you have a pot of that on the stove and I will definitely Cha Collard Soupmake the 100 yard trek across the parking lot.  I’ll even bring the bacon.

I have mixed feelings about the dessert.  Dessert is tough for a lot of chefs; that’s why there is a specialty called ‘pastry chef.’  It’s almost not fair to judge these chefs by dessert if they don’t have a Rebeca Alvarado Paredes on their team.  To make it and possibly not do it well is a risk; to skip it and go with three savory dishes is also a risk.  So most teams go sweet and take their chances.  Kirsten has had her butt handed to her over dessert in this competition in battles past.  But she persevered tonight and had a pretty solid showing with her homage to Gerry Fong’s winning penchant for things in sets of three.  The screen might have said Chocolate Cha! Torte, Almond Cha! Pound Cake, Blackberry Mousse, Chai Cha! Caramel Sauce, but we called it “The Fong Trifecta.”  And it worked.

Cha DessertSo here’s to Chef Kirsten Mitchell, who I am proud to call my friend.  Congratulations!

If you would like to get to know Kirsten up close and personal, join the Club and attend one of her cooking classes with the Cape Fear Food & Wine Club hosted by The Seasoned Gourmet.  She’s not just a great chef, but a natural instructor who loves sharing her passion for food with others.

Heard in the kitchen today:

Chef Mitchell, upon realizing that the home-sized immersion blenders provided were just a wee tad small for her commercial stock pot full of soup, “These things suck.”

Scott Padrick, sous chef:  “Chef – is that enough brunoise?” Chef Mitchell:  “Just keep going.”

Zack Zaytoun, cook:  “Where is that big mixer?”  The Kitchen Chorus: “Downstairs.”

“Hot sauce is my favorite thing in the whole world.” – Chef Kirsten Mitchell

Kirsten Team

The Chef, The Farmer, and You

7 01 2014

As I was driving to work today, I felt all warm inside despite the frigid temperature outside.  I love this time of year, when Wilmington is her most authentic self.  In these months of cold air and short daylight hours, my beloved city is a true Southern town.  The summer people are gone, the holidays are over, I have tied my last Christmas bow and counted the widgits in the store for the tax man who, like death, inevitably comes.  The cooking class schedule for the next season is set, my menus are prepared, my recipes are being slowly tested in my spare time, and I actually have spare time.  I can carefully write a blog post that is something other than a rant.  This is the life!

BeachIt’s slower here in the winter, more like a Southern town is supposed to be.  I can get to work in five minutes or less.  I can get over the drawbridge to Wrightsville Beach without slamming on my brakes, despite the construction.  I can make the right turn onto Keel Street in front of Redix without fear that someone will ignore the opposing stop signs and T-bone my car.  I can leave my car running while I dash into the post office to check my mail – no one will steal it today.  My mail will actually be in the box by 9:30 am, something that only happens this time of year.  I can go to the beach without fighting for or paying for parking.  I can take my dog to the beach, though perhaps not today (brrr).  It’s just so Southern here this time of year, slow like molasses pouring from a jug and comfortable like a favorite pair of flip flops.

As a devout foodie, I have another reason to love this time of year.  I can get a table for dinner at most any restaurant on any day of any week without reservations.  If your life looks anything like mine, it is a rare day when you can plan ahead enough to make reservations.  There are just too many variables in a typical day for me to plan dinner more than an hour or two in advance, so now that the best restaurants are not jammed with visitors and things are slower in general, I can dine out again.

There is one place that reservations are always required, and it might just be the hottest ticket in this chilly seaside town.  I am so excited to attend at least one or two of these events again this year and really wish I could go to each and every one of them.  But I would need a much better paying job for that!  I love being able to sample the on-the-fly creations of a variety of chefs from an assortment of restaurants around the coastal area.  I love the friendly competitive spirit that I have witnessed behind the scenes.  I so love that nearly all the ingredients used to create these meals is created, grown, or raised here in North Carolina.

What place am I talking about?  Fire on the Dock, of course!  This local arm of a statewide Competition Dining series has been firing up the coastal area for three years now, and I truly look forward to it every year.  I enjoy these events so much that I’m a teensy bit jealous that I didn’t think of it myself.  But if I had, I doubt I could have actually breathed life into quite as successfully as Jimmy Crippen has done.  I can only imagine how tired his arms got swimming up that stream of transforming his local cooking event in Blowing Rock into a series of events across North Carolina, culminating in a finale each year in, where else, the state capital of Raleigh.

BluewaterI am headed over to Bluewater, the hosts of these fantastic events, for the Media Day event for the kick off of Fire on the Dock 2014 this afternoon.  I will be tweeting the competitor’s names as they are announced, and I will update you tomorrow with a little who’s who post.  Stay tuned!

Get ready to experience great local food cooked by energetic local chefs in an Iron Chef-style competition where you are the judge.  If you are a foodie like me, you are guaranteed to have a blast.  It’s all about The Chef, The Farmer, and You!

Why blog when someone will do it for you?

3 04 2013

Hey there!  Long time no post.  Again.  It’s getting to be a pattern with me, yes?

Ah, well, why stress?  As it turns out, someone else blogged for me today, so no need to blather on here.  Go visit the Port City Foodies blog and read about my opinion.  I mean really, does anyone care what I think?  Don’t answer that.

I will be at the finale of Fire on the Dock tonight as a so-called “pro” judge.  That just means my vote counts for slightly more than the average diner, but not enough to tip the win or loss one direction or another.  So I am just one of 120 voters tonight, and I am looking forward to the tasty creations of the last two competitors standing in this regional battle, Gerry Fong and Clarke Merrell.  Their long day began about 3 hours ago; I wish them both the best!

I did such a good job of maintaining this blog (NOT) that my boss gave me another one to maintain (uh oh).  You can check it out over here where there actually is a recipe that I posted today.  One way or another I will get around to all of this…I swear.

JoshPettySeaBassCroquetteParting Shot, prepared by Chef Josh Petty of Sweet ‘n Savory from Battle Striped Bass at Competition Dining’s Fire on the Dock:

Striped Bass & Pancetta Croquet with Fennel Salad, Oyster Mushrooms, Chiffonade Collard Greens, Tricolor Pepper Sofrito & Lobster Dill Cream

My Opinion:  Creative and well-executed!

Under Fire: In the Competition Dining Kitchen

21 03 2013

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.

IMG_1705Today, 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:

  • Try not to serve the same proteins
  • Menus are due to Chef Referee at 3:30pm.
  • Chef Ref Stan Chamberlin

    Chef Ref Stan Chamberlin

    Chef Ref Lawrence is not in the house today; the original Chef Ref Stan Chamberlin, formerly of Crippin’s Country Inn & Restaurant, will be officiating.

  • No signature dishes from your restaurant
  • You must be escorted to the bathroom or pantry truck after 5:30pm.  (Apparently, there have been spies loitering around hoping to get insider information from team members.  Leaks.  Drama.)

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.)

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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.

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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.

Team Woo: IMG_1732

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 IMG_1736herself 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.

Team Fong: 

IMG_1730 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 IMG_1754extremely 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.IMG_1758

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.

IMG_17312:52 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.

IMG_1728 IMG_1725 IMG_1721 IMG_1722 IMG_1720 IMG_1724 IMG_1713IMG_1737  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.

IMG_1733 IMG_1739 IMG_1740 IMG_17476:00 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.

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Porking Around Wilmington & Chicago…and Ponzu

8 03 2013

Hello My Dear Readers!

Sorry for yet another long pause in the white noise that is my so-called foodie blog.  You probably slept just fine without me.  But here I am, back to annoy you.  While I was away, I wasn’t merely chained to the stove at work like usual; they actually IMG_1677extended my leash and let me go to Chicago for a trade show.  When I returned from freezing my tail off up north, there was a bracing cold 30 mile per hour wind blowing here in coastal North Carolina that seemed to have followed me back from the Windy City.  My apologies to my neighbors.

It seems that March is shaping up to be all about pigs in my corner of the universe.  I’m thinking about bacon, belly, barbeque (which to those of us in this part of NC means pulled pork shoulder or butt with a vinegar sauce), chicharones, lardo, all manner of charcuterie – pretty much anything that comes from our cleft-hooved friends.  So let me share with you some of the porky highlights going on ‘round here.

‘Prince of Pork’ Packs his Pouch:  We got word that Chef Kyle Lee McKnight – most recently manning the stoves at manna in downtown Wilmington – is departing our fair city to run the kitchens of a new venture in Hickory, NC.  Kyle has been dubbed the “Prince of Pork” by locals because of his work with Bev Eggleston to create “outrageously fine swine” including delicious artisan charcuterie crafted by Kyle and made from Iberico hogs (the delicious breed made famous in Spain).  So what happened is that local star chef Keith Rhodes and local food blogger Kyle McKnightextraordinaire Liz Biro planned an event to bid Kyle farewell and this coming Sunday, March 10th, some of us will be enjoying a 10-course tasting menu in his honor featuring – you guessed it – pork!  (If you want to join us, click here to see if tickets are still available.)  We are starting with chicharones and ending with bacon and waffle ice cream – are you jealous yet?  Serious respect amongst industry folks in our town for Kyle…can’t wait to see where his future takes him.

Chocolate Wins (on anything):  On March 4th, the Fire on the Dock battle between Chef Brent Poteat of 22 North on Wrightsville Beach and Chef Pat Greene of Elijah’s downtown featured Heritage Farms Premium Pork.  Though the evening’s victory went to Brent, the diners seemed to really dig Pat’s Seasoned Collard Green Pork Soup with Candied Bacon.  I think the idea of featuring pork in a soup is genius;porksoup it’s certainly not on my Top 10 list of things to make with pork, but the scores were pretty high.  Way to go, Pat!  At the end of the evening, it seems that you get more points with chocolate crème fraiche cake than with pork roulade (didn’t anybody tell Pat that, while not required, dessert has won these battles for many a chef?)  It looked like a tasty battle and I am sorry I missed it.  Perhaps I will see Brent in the final four coming up at the end of the month.

Mangiale il Maiale (Eat the Pig):  I couldn’t help myself, I had to work pork into a cooking class.  So I came up with an ode to Florence, Italy and surrounding countryside for a cooking class I am conducting on March 26th.  I’m calling it Flavors of Florence and I’m serving an anitpasto of Calamari Salad with Basil, Mint, Grape Tomatoes, and Shallots; Spaghetti tossed with a spicy Roasted Red Pepper Sauce; tender Marinated Pork Chops with Red Wine Mushroom Sauce; and simple but stunning individual Puff Pastry Fruit Tarts with Chantilly Cream.

Happy as a Pig in…Wine?:  While in Chicago for a trade show scouting the latest, greatest kitchen tools for our store, I had the opportunity to dine at The Purple Pig, a happening little place on North Michigan Avenue in the heart of the Windy City.  I arrived early, which is to say that there was no line yet, though nearly every seat was full on this Sunday evening.  Since I was alone, they squeezed me into a bar stool at what they call “The Chef’s Counter,” behind which most of the cooking takes place in this pork-centric culinary haven.  Next to me, the Expediter on my side of the counter was in constant eye contact with the Chef de Cuisine who called out near-constant orders to the cooks on the line and tasted nearly everything before sending it out to the diners.  Here, Chef Jimmy Bannos Jr. and crew craft some of their own charcuterie and transform all parts of the pig into delicious creations that are carefully prepared and beautifully presented.  It was a friendly place with more than reasonable prices for the quality; my tab for the evening came in under $50 for four courses.  The wine list is extensive and well chosen, hence the color purple in the name on the door.  I was so excited about the cheese and charcuterie course that I failed to snap a photo for you, and the same thing happened with the beets – sorry.  I did, however, sneak one of my neighbor’s marrow bones; I have a tiny twinge of regret for not ordering them myself.  But everything I had was fabulous:  Lingua Agrodolce with Quadrelo (both house made); Salt-Roasted Beets with Whipped Goat Cheese and Pistachio Vinaigrette; “JLT,” an open faced sandwich with Pork Jowl, Tomato, dressed Frisée, and a fried Duck Egg; and I stole off into the frigid night with Grandma D’s Chocolate Cake with Almond & Orange Marmaletta.  You must visit this approachable and delicious place when next in Chicago – you will not regret it!

IMG_1689 IMG_1688 IMG_1686 IMG_1685 IMG_1681 I am sure there are more porkified events going on, but that’s what I have to report for now.  So get in the spirit and start porking around – the possibilities are endless!  Here’s a little recipe to get you started.

P.S. The Ponzu keeps in the fridge for a month or so and makes boring Chinese take-out on those busy evenings a whole lot better!

Ponzu-Orange Marinated Pork Tenderloin

2 cups Ponzu Sauce (recipe follows; or use store-bought)

Juice and Zest of 1 large Orange

½ cup Canola or Vegetable Oil

1 Pork Tenderloin, trimmed, silver skin removed

Combine ponzu, oil, juice, and zest in a Ziploc bag.  Add the tenderloin to the marinade, squeeze the air out of the bag, close and refrigerate for 2 hours.

Preheat your grill or grill pan over medium-high heat.  Sear the tenderloin for about 2 minutes per side.  Reduce heat to medium and grill an additional 5 minutes per side.

Remove from heat and tent with foil.  Rest for 5 minutes.  Slice into 1” thick rounds and serve.

Serves 4.


Ponzu Sauce

2/3 cup Lemon Juice, more to taste

1/3 cup Lime Juice, more to taste

¼ cup Rice Vinegar

1 cup Soy Sauce

¼ cup Mirin (or 1/4 cup sake and 1 tablespoon sugar)

1 3-inch piece Kelp (konbu)

½ cup (about ¼ ounce) dried Bonito Flakes

Pinch Ground Cayenne Pepper

In a bowl, combine all ingredients. Let sit for at least 2 hours or overnight. Strain. Just before using, you might add a small squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice.

Cover and refrigerate.

Makes about 2 ½ cups.


Be a “Docker” – The Fire is Lit!

11 02 2013

I love my job.  I didn’t always, but circumstances have led me full circle back to the place I once left because I was very unhappy – and it is completely different than it used to be.  I consider myself very lucky to be able to do something to pay my bills that also brings me fulfillment on a more personal level.  I am all too aware that not everyone has the opportunity to do what they love for a living; I feel blessed.  Other people seem to notice, too, as they comment about how both I and my place of employment seem to be thriving.  It’s a good fit.

I have been privileged to witness another good fit in the person of Jimmy Crippens and the cooking phenomenon that is Competition Dining NC.  Knowing well that it takes a team of people to make a success of any venture, I am sure that Jimmy jimmycrippenswould be quick to tell me that he is far from a one man show; it takes a small army of people to make this fantastic program work.  Yet, when I think about this competition and the dining events thereof that I have enjoyed, I think first of Jimmy.  He is the face of these competitions, the Master of Ceremonies, the champion of the cause who spearheaded the move to make it what it is today; he is the one visible constant over the years of building a local cooking competition into a statewide program.  He seems the perfect person to be the face and voice of this movement; it’s a good fit.  I have to assume he loves his job, too, because this stuff is hard work that invades your consciousness nearly 24 hours a day; he has to be passionate about it or he could not muster the stamina that it requires to make it a success.  By the way, Jimmy has had another job – another life entirely – that he has now decided to put in the rear view mirror to permit him to embrace this program full time.

The competition that Jimmy and countless others have no doubt made sacrifices to usher into its current state is officially known as the “Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series.”  It’s mission is to raise awareness regarding the origin of the food that we consume; to support local and regional growers, manufacturers, and artisans who create our food here in North Carolina; and to showcase the talents of the chefs and restaurateurs who use these products to create the tasty dishes we consume when we dine out.  Along the way, it has also grown to incorporate other matters of interest like kitchen fire safety and small production, affordable wines that pair well with fine foods.   For me, it has been a lesson in the seemingly endless array of fabulous products that are grown or created in North Carolina.  I had no idea we made so much stuff right here in our state!

Last year, I wrote about how the events work from a diner’s perspective.  What I have been thinking about lately is what it is like from the competing chef’s perspective.  While I have not been in the kitchens of this competition, I am acquainted with some who have.  The feedback that I have received makes it clear that this competition is about so much more than just cooking; it is a long, hot, grueling day in the kitchen that starts with the announcement of a secret ingredient mere hours before dinner service.  For a competing chef and her team, it is every bit as much about creativity, leadership, teamwork, comraderie, humility, focus, and determination as it is about cooking.  If anyone thinks that being a good cook alone makes you a shoe-in to win this competition, I can point you to a lot of chefs who will tell you otherwise.  It’s a competition of character and stamina as well as cooking; taking yourself too seriously will not lead to success.

Last year, the kitchens used for the local edition of this program that we know as “Fire on the Dock” were small; the competitors had no choice but to work with and around each other to get their food to the dining tables.  From what I am told, the competitors who worked well together communicated their needs for space and time to each other, budgeted time with certain equipment so that everyone could get their work accomplished, and even helped each other with plating.  The ones that did not play well together did not fare well and, more importantly, didn’t enjoy the experience.

There will be a winner and a loser from each battle – that is a fact.  Some of the margins of loss are by mere single-digit point CompDiningNC2013spreads.  The losers, it could be said, are not really losers; they just weren’t the statistical winners.  It is a very subjective voting process and 70% of the votes are made by “average Joes,” as Jimmy refers to them.  It is important for the chefs to remember the basics when devising their menus: We eat with our eyes first, so plating is important; but the taste and texture are ultimately the deciding factors for 70% of the dining room.  I think most of us understand that pretty plates with several components are more difficult to create.  But only the pro judges – 30% of the vote – are likely to know the skill involved in creating a particular dish.  The chefs are well advised to play to the masses and just not worry about the pro judges like me.

Yes, that’s right.  These kind folks have asked me to serve as a “Pro” judge at the final three events of Fire on the Dock this year.  Clearly, they are using the term “Pro” very loosely.  Yes, I know a good bit about food and cooking, and I teach cooking classes and manage a kitchen store.  But many of these competitors have extensive culinary education and experience that, by comparison, put me firmly into the “amateur” column.  Really, who am I to judge?  Maybe they just love me for my blog.  Well, no matter, I appreciate the opportunity to participate in these great events that celebrate all things food in North Carolina.  I hope the competitors remember to have some fun while they are cooking their hearts out for my dining pleasure.  Make some memories, chefs!

If you happen to be within a reasonable commute of the Wilmington area, I hope you will join us for one of these delicious home-grown dining events and be happily labeled a “Docker” by Jimmy, like me.  I promise good food, great entertainment, and perhaps some Bluewaternew friends while you enjoy the fantastic views of the intracoastal waterway from the top floor of Bluewater.  Make a mini vacation out of it while you are at it; the rooms rates are very reasonable this time of year and a walk on Wrightsville Beach in the relative peace of February or March is priceless.  Maybe you can even have dinner at one of the competitor’s restaurants during your stay.

The brackets have been announced and the cooking starts next week on February 18th; events are filling up fast, so visit the website to make your reservations today before it’s too late!

If you can’t make it to Fire on the Dock, be sure to attend one of the events when this delicious road show comes to your corner of North Carolina.  Find the full schedule at; follow them on twitter at @compdiningnc and like them on Facebook at

Fire it up, Wilmington!  See you at “the Dock!”

Wilmington for Foodies: Groceries, Gadgets, and Gurus

27 01 2013

Now, I may be a bit biased in my views, but what I am about to share with you here are some of the best places to shop in Wilmington for foodies like me, plus a couple of folks you should know about who can keep you in the foodie loop.  That I happen to manage one of the stores I recommend may seem like a conflict of interest; since I am not being paid for my opinion, I don’t have any ethical qualms about it.  Chalk it up to confirmation that I love my job!  The opinions herein are strictly those of the author, and you know what they say about opinions.  Don’t take my word for it – visit these stores and judge for yourself.


If you live here, I am sure you are aware that we have an abundance of grocery stores such as Food Lion, Lowes Foods, Harris Teeter, The Fresh Market, even Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s that both opened last year.  Personally, I need nothing from Trader Joe’s, though I do stop into Whole Foods once every month or so for some bulk goods that I don’t find elsewhere.  Also, their produce is reasonably priced and includes hard-to-find items.  Their cheese selection is possibly the best in town, though it is expensive.  I do most of my standard grocery shopping at Harris Teeter – canned goods, paper products, frozen items, etc.  But the best in local produce at this time of year when the Farmer’s Markets are not operating is at La Huerta, located at 830 S. Kerr Avenue.

LaHuerta1LaHuerta2 LaHuerta3Spanish for “The Garden,” this wonderful place is a haven for delicious, fresh produce.  Also to be found here are some great Mexican-style cheeses, dried chilis and spices, cookies, canned goods, dried beans, and cured meats.  Much of their product comes from North Carolina growers and purveyors, so in many cases you are buying a local product from a local retailer – the ultimate in shopping and eating local.  La Huerta doesn’t have everything – if you want watercress and endive, you are not likely to find them here.  It is, after all, a Hispanic market that caters to the Mexican and Latin-American population of the area.  But a visit here will not disappoint you, and will likely inspire a meal or two as you gaze at all the lovely ingredients.

Among the unexpected treats I found at La Huerta recently were a delicious Oaxacan rope-style cheese  that had the texture of part-skim mozzarella and some lovely side bacon from hogs raised right here in North Carolina.  The cheese was super delicious when I baked it up inside puff pastry pinwheels – it seemed to be more flavorful melted.  The bacon I baked on a sheet pan to render off much of the fat, then dipped the crispy slices in melted chocolate and served it with a red Bordeaux at a wine pairing class last week.  Mm mm mm.  I also found green tomatoes in the dead of winter y’all, and you know what I did with those.  You don’t?  Where you from, Shug?

SaigonMarket1 SaigonMarket2 SaigonMarket3

From La Huerta, you can head up Kerr Avenue toward Market Street and visit Saigon Market & Tatyana’s European Delights in Kerr Station Village.  Saigon Market, 4507 Franklin Ave., is practically a landmark in Wilmington; if you like to cook and you live here for any length of time, someone will send you there for something.  I confess to sending a good many people there when they are in search of obscure or  Asian ingredients.  I personally go there as much for the experience as anything else.  I love to look at all the products, read what I can of the labels that may or may not have an English translation on them, and decide what strange new product I am going to take home to sample.  I haven’t had the privilege of traveling to the Far East, so Saigon Market is as close as I have been to an Asian cultural experience.  Also, they often have delicacies like quail eggs that you can’t find elsewhere in town.  The other eggs, the ones without cartons or labels?  You should really ask about those.  I don’t want to spoil it for you.  I love pork Lumpia (Filipino-style egg rolls) but not the laborious process of making them, so I buy the frozen ones here.  If you need chopsticks, or rice bowls, or those functional little shovel-style soup spoons used in Asian restaurants, they have those too.  Fresh produce is limited to the most common ingredients used in Asian cooking, but it is top notch.  Mung bean sprouts, Napa cabbage, bok choy and much more is cleaned and bagged on the premises, refrigerated and ready for you to use.  Open seven days a week until 7pm, Saigon Market is a feast for your senses!

Walk around the corner from Saigon Market and enter a little corner of Eastern Europe right here in Wilmington.  Tatyana’s boasts an unimaginable assortment of items for such a small space – pickled veggies of all sorts, beverages, candies, cookies, sausages, just about anything you can think of from tatyanasthe old country.  Fresh foods and baked goods are also available. Monday through Saturday 10am to 7pm and Sunday 12-5pm, Tatyana’s is ready to serve you with delectable treats from Russia, Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary, and beyond.  If you don’t live here, no worries!  Tatyana’s website has a virtual shopping cart – they will ship to your doorstep.

Using La Huerta as our starting point once again, you can head the other way on Kerr Avenue, between Wilshire and Wrightsville Avenues, where you will find Tienda Los Portales.  This supermercado has a bevy of Mexican foods and products.  If you need masa harina for your tamales, LosPortalesSupermercadoor just better prices on grocery items (like crema or tortillas) than you can find elsewhere, give this store a try.  Pick up some fresh-baked cookies and bread, or a piñata to fill with candy for the kids at your next party.  It’s a little bit of home for the Latin Americans in our community, and the rest of us “gringos” are welcome, too.

A few more essential links:

Fresh Bread and Amazing Desserts:  La Gemma Fine Italian Pastries

Hard-to-find cuts of meat, yummy fresh-prepared foods, and much more:  Pine Valley Market

Organics, Vegetarian, and Vegan Specialties:  Tidal Creek Co-Op


I have to tell you about the store I manage – The Seasoned Gourmet, located at 1930 Eastwood Road.  We don’t carry fresh foods like these other fine establishments; rather, we carry the tools and shelf-stable ingredients you need to cook at home.  We have a large assortment of kitchen tools and gadgets – I’m going to go out on a limb and say perhaps the largest selection in Wilmington.  Cookware, cutlery, bamboo boards and accessories, and bakeware abound in our modest space.  Oils, vinegars, seasonings, and flavorings anchor one section of our space.  We do a brisk gift basket business, and I know they are the best looking gifts in town because I have shopped around.  We hand-tie all of our gorgeous bows, and we build the gifts to your specifications.  Shipping and delivery are no problem.

TSG (598x800)Coffee & wine are a big part of our business, too.  We have a coffee club that is free to join and has been around since our inception in 1994; members enjoy a free pound for every 10 pounds purchased, any coffee combination, any length of time.  We offer fine coffees from Carolina Coffee Company which is roasted right here in Wilmington.  We also have a hand-selected array of boutique and small production wine, about 150 different labels on any given day, ranging from $6.99 to $289 per bottle.

The Seasoned Gourmet boasts an ever-growing assortment of local and regional products, from the iconic Goodness Gracie Heavenly Toffee Cookies to all-natural cookies for your dog from My Porch Dawg.  Mama Lou’s, Off the Hook, Outta the Park, Pluto’s, Bone Doctor’s, and Mother Shuckers are but a few of the sauces on our shelves.  8th Wonder Seasoning, Carolina Candy Company, Salem Baking Company, Polka Dot Bake Shop, Heide’s Homemade Buttermints, Old School Mill, Shirley’s Peanut Brittle & More, Cat Daddy’s, The Peanut Roaster, and Old Log Cabin (Berry Towne Crafts) are but a few of the other local products on our shelves. 

The Cape Fear Food & Wine Club, which meets at The Seasoned Gourmet, offers cooking classes and wine pairing classes to members and their guests.  In addition to store staff, the Club hosts some of the best chefs in Wilmington who offer recipes and instruction culminating in chef-prepared meals.  It’s a chance to get up close and personal with the folks behind the stovesIMG_1342 (478x640) at your favorite restaurants!  The Club is a one-of-a-kind offering in Wilmington, teaching classes in  a kitchen equipped with residential equipment, just like at home.  From hands-on techniques classes (knife skills, soufflés) to demonstration classes with themed dinner menus, the club has something for everyone who enjoys cooking.

We like to say that we are “Wilmington’s Complete Culinary Experience,” and we want every visit to our store to reflect that sentiment.  We have wine and food open for sampling nearly every day, so be sure to ask if you see something you want to taste.  The Seasoned Gourmet takes phone orders for gift baskets and many of our products can be ordered through our website, which is still under construction.

The prices are more than reasonable at all of these places.  I may be a store manager, but I live on a budget like everyone else these days, hence the crappy tree house apartment I complain about often on this blog.  These are the places I shop because they have the best product for the price, and I am all about quality.  I want the best value possible for my hard-earned money.  These stores offer just that.


For the up-to-the-minute scoop on what’s going on in the Wilmington Food Scene, two indispensable resources come to mind. Port City Foodies (@portcityfoodies), a blog hosted by the Star-News and driven largely by a hard-working guy named Paul Stephen (@pauljstephen), definitely has its finger on the pulse of all things food in Wilmington.  Another reliable resource is Liz Biro (@lizbiro, @lizbirofoodtours). This lady knows everyone who’s anyone in food in the Port City and can hook you up with a tour to see the best of the best in action.

That’s it for my insider tips to the best foodie finds in Wilmington for now.  Get out there and Eat Wilmington!

Inspired Cooking with Marc Copenhaver

19 09 2012

I was sitting at home on Friday evening catching up with what people were saying on Twitter, and came across a tweet from Marc’s on Market about a cooking class on Sunday.  If you don’t know, Marc & Sara Copenhaver own and operate the restaurant Marc’s on Market at 7213 Market Street here in Wilmington.  I was looking forward to a day off on Sunday and had no plans; going to a cooking class sounded like fun.  So I called and left a message for a reservation and made a note on my calendar.

Those of you who know what I do to earn my paycheck may find it a bit weird that I went to a cooking class.  I manage The Seasoned Gourmet, a locally owned kitchen store that hosts the Cape Fear Food & Wine Club; cooking classes are a major part of what we do, and I teach classes myself.  For you, I submit this:  Just because I host classes every week and teach a few doesn’t mean I know everything.  I’m not a gourmet chef; I’m just a good cook.  I love food and cooking and am always looking for inspiration in the kitchen.  As it turns out, Marc’s class was definitely inspiring – I’m so glad they had room for me to attend!

On this day, we went beyond the simple, modern dining room I have patronized numerous times into the spotlessly clean operating room of this 2008 Wilmington Top Chef.  Marc’s theme for the class was to create a meal from what he found at the Farmer’s Market – seasonal cooking at its best.  He did indeed have some local, seasonal selections like kohlrabi, onions, okra, and head-on shrimp.  He also selected some items that are in season right now but not grown locally, like baby artichokes from California and Hatch chilis from New Mexico.  Marc recommends that you not get too hung up on the local thing, but challenge yourself instead to cook seasonally and enjoy the best of everything that is available.  As he said, “Everyone has a right to make a living selling their products.”

Marc started the session by sharing his thought process about how to bring all these great ingredients together, telling us that we
should apply what we know about cooking different ingredients and use that to guide us as we create new dishes.  The star of the dayCap Steak, Creamed Corn, Okra was undoubtedly the Deckel Steak (also known as Cap Steak or Loin Flap Steak), which Marc described as the cut of beef that is wrapped around the outside of the Rib Eye.  It looks a bit like the flank, but Marc says the grain runs the opposite direction of flank.  He trimmed the excess fat, sliced the meat lengthwise against the grain, and rolled it into pinwheels tying it together with butcher’s twine.  A simple seasoning of salt, pepper, and a brush of oil and Marc grilled this to a perfect medium rare.  Served with Fresh Creamed Corn with diced Hatch Chilis and Onions plus Pan Seared Petite Okra this was a fantastic small plate of food packed with flavor.

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Before we enjoyed the Cap Steak et al, we had what Marc called a counterintuitive take on Shrimp; “Sweated” Shrimp cooked low and slow (well, slow for shrimp anyhow) in a dab of butter and served with Kohlrabi Slaw and Roasted Baby Artichokes.  The texture of the shrimp was amazing.  “It’s the same bite all the way through,” Marc said, as opposed to the rubbery outside and soft inside that quick-cooked shrimp often has.  Marc’s idea here was to let the shrimp cook in their own juices with minimal seasoning, which can only be done with super fresh shrimp that hasn’t been drowned in tap water or frozen.  The kohlrabi slaw had a great texture but I would have kicked up the flavor some (the older I get, the more flavor I crave).

The final dish was like going to science class – and I was the student who was awed by it the most!  My cooking is very basic and traditional, so imagine my surprise when Mark flavored up some sour cream in the stand mixer and then added crushed dry ice to it to make an almost instant ice cream!  While I didn’t care for the flavor profile – sour cream, maple, cinnamon, apple cider – I was highly impressed with the texture and the speed of the process.  I will be going to Rose’s to get some dry ice to try this technique very soon.  Marc served the ice cream with roasted, caramelized pears for a sweet finish to a fun class.

Unlike other classes where you know the menu in advance and the table is set for you, this experience was totally folksy (carry your own chairs to the kitchen if you want one) and free form – the menu is not announced in advance.  As long as you don’t suffer from any allergies or dietary restrictions, it’s rather fun to walk in and be surprised about what you will be eating.  The portions are modest, so you won’t have to cancel your dinner plans.  You aren’t provided recipes – you write down what you want to remember as you go, and Marc happily repeats anything you might miss during the action.  Sara pours generous samplings of the wines that she has carefully paired to the menu.  At $45 per person with the modest portions of food and the self-help aspects, I would rate it a fair value but not a great one.  However, if you want the chance to go behind the swinging doors into the restaurant kitchen of one of Wilmington’s most talented chefs, then the experience is priceless.

I hear that Marc & Sara offer these classes once a month on a Saturday or a Sunday at lunch time.  If you “like” them on Facebook or follow them on twitter (@marcsonmarket) you are sure to hear about them, as well as their menu changes and specials.  Whether you  attend a class or stop in for dinner any given day (except Monday), you are sure to enjoy good food and great hospitality!

The Rx for Good Eats: A Review

22 07 2012

I have been waiting for James Doss’ new kitchen to heat up ever since I enjoyed his food at Fire on the Dock on April 3rd.  You can’t judge a restaurant solely on the chef’s performance at an event like Competition Dining NC; it’s a tough environment even for the best cooks.  Despite James’ defeat that night, I knew I was going to enjoy his restaurant because the structure of his dishes and the flavor profiles held much promise (that bison short rib was killer, James).  My venture into Rx at the corner of 5th and Castle Street tonight definitely met my expectations.

Since I was dining alone, I opted to sit at the bar – I always feel awkward sitting at a table alone.  The hostesses were friendly and helpful, directing me to the bar.  The lovely and friendly Jane was tending the bar, as well as another young man whose name I did not catch.  There was plenty of staff on duty; perhaps they are still in training.  The menu was one page of delicious options – quite a number of “firsts,” a few “staples” that seem to be core entrées, and a quartet of “mains” that were the features.  There were also five dessert offerings, which appeals to me a lot more the older I get (here’s hoping my waistline doesn’t reflect this inclination too obviously).

I was torn between the Buffalo Pig Ears and the Pork Belly for a first course.  I opted for the latter and am so glad I did.  This was the most luxurious, sumptuous, decadent, sexy thing I have eaten in a while.  A gorgeously seared slab of pork belly coddled between a perfect sunny egg and cheesy grits with some sort of jus or sauce I couldn’t quite identify.  After the first bite it no longer mattered what the sauce was, or where I was, or what my name was, or who might be watching.  I may have visibly swooned.  This is seduction on a plate – or in a bowl, as it were.  I just can’t say enough about it.  I’m a total sucker for seriously good pork fat creations, and for perfectly cooked eggs.  This double whammy blew me away.  Give me a minute to compose myself, if you will.

Alright then, where was I?  Oh yes, the entrée.  I opted for the Sheepshead served with field peas in a tomato-based sauce that was spectacular. The sheepshead (a saltwater fish, for the uninitiated; not a sheep’s head, thank you) was perfectly cooked and seasoned and, as I said, the sauce was wonderful.  I felt the field peas were a bit too al dente – some were downright crunchy.  I ate over half of them anyhow because I had to have more of that sauce they were swimming in.  Another two minutes on the peas and I may have been swooning again, though nothing quite does it like pork fat and chocolate.

Speaking of chocolate, I decided to take a slice of the Dark Chocolate Cheesecake home with me as I could not eat another bite at that moment.  I usually require a sweet bite before retiring to the boudoir for my beauty sleep, so I will be enjoying it shortly.  I am sure it was made in-house (it is lacking the over-the-top touches that are the hallmark of a pastry chef/bakery) and will undoubtedly be delicious.  I wanted to try the ice creams – there was a choice of pear or sweet potato – but I just didn’t have room.  I hope they will have them next time I go back, which I will surely do more than once.

The pear ice cream had the name of two people attached to it, whom I am assuming are cooks at the establishment.  Once of them is Alex; my new downstairs neighbor is named Alex and he works in a restaurant.  I will have to be nosy and ask if by chance it is his name on the pear ice cream at Rx.  If so, maybe he can smuggle some home for me.

I highly recommend a visit to this new addition to the Wilmington dining scene.  As I was leaving with my cheesecake about 7:30pm, things seemed to be picking up.  I heard the dinner service continues until about 10PM, after which the bar menu carries through to nearly 2AM, pig ears included.  If you are a night owl, it seems that Rx will leave the light – and the fryer – on for you.  Rx could be the next favorite after-hours spot for the downtown crowd, including off-duty cooks from other eateries.  That’s where I’d want to eat at 1AM – if I was awake.

O. M. G.


The Top 10 Reasons I am a “Regular”

17 05 2012

I’m off to do good for others today.  So while I am out, here’s a little something for you to digest.  I look forward to your comments!

Since we all know I don’t have a life, I thought I’d take some of the copious time on my hands to write about food from a different perspective:  The Dining-Out Experience.

No, I have not gone off half-cocked and appointed myself a culinary expert.  This isn’t about the food.  Well, OK, it isn’t all about the food.  It’s about the total package of the dining-out experience from the perspective of a customer.  I happen to be an educated consumer: I have owned my own small retail/service business; I have cooked for groups and for people in their homes; and I continue to teach cooking classes in my semi-retirement.  So I know food.  But I am not a culinary school graduate and have never owned a restaurant – so I may not have credibility with those that are and do.  I am just a smart consumer with a good palate who knows how to properly wield a knife.  That makes me at least as qualified as anyone else to write about what keeps me coming back to certain restaurants and never returning to others.  In spite of the credibility issue, there just might be something here that could be of use to a restaurateur should they choose to pay attention.

I’m focusing on the positive here, so you may have to read between the lines to understand why I am not coming back to your restaurant if that be the shoe that fits.  So let’s begin, shall we?

The Top 10 Reasons I am a “Regular” at your restaurant, Letterman style, are:

10.  The décor, lighting, music, and temperature are moderate and comfortable.  You are firm in your identity and don’t distract me from the food with ridiculous wall murals, hideous paint colors, or objets d’art hanging over my table at eye level.  Your décor befits your brand identity.  You know that: lighting that is as bright as a grocery store or as dim as a movie theater; music that is so loud I have to yell at my companions; and a dining room that is too hot or too cold really turn me off.  You have managed to master these elements of ambiance and I am always comfortable here.  I’m here for the food, after all, not for a nightclub experience.

9.  You never fix things that aren’t broken.  I have been eating the _________ at your restaurant for a couple years now, and it’s my favorite thing on the menu.  I went to one of my other favorite places recently and ordered my go-to dish from their menu.  When it came out of the kitchen, I didn’t even recognize it!  And the taste?  Not good.  I could understand removing it from the menu to add something else, but they really shouldn’t have changed it.  I’m guessing they got a new cook and he just had to put his stamp on things.  But you pay attention to your sales history and customer feedback and make those kinds of changes based on facts, not personal whims.  So I know your food won’t go downhill like that.

8.  You always make it right with me.  Everyone makes mistakes once in a while, and when you do you make it right.  Whether offering a do-over, another item from the menu, a complimentary dessert, or just removing the item from my bill – I always leave happy.  I was in this other place not long ago – a very highly reviewed place here in town – and they overcooked my entrée (really, they killed it).  They offered to make me another, but I declined because I was running late and was hungry.  So I ate what I could of it and paid full price.  I was a bit put off that they didn’t offer a discount and have not been back.

7.  You make the best ____________ in town.  My friend had your signature dish when we came in together for the first time.  I had a couple of bites, and had to agree with her that it was really good.  I came back to have a whole order of it to myself.  I have tried most of the things on your menu and still think this is the thing you do best.  Your place is my go-to entertaining spot when I have out of town guests because the _________ is reliably good – and the service, too (see # 4).

If your dining room is empty, read on.

6.  Your menu suits you.  Your name, your décor, your logo, your advertisements, your location – you know, your brand identity – is reflected in your menu.  One of the places I won’t ever go back to again has an Irish name (complete with shamrock in the logo), a dark, confused décor (diner meets tavern meets just plain old), and a completely Italian-American menu.  The menu was also six pages long – that’s just ridiculous.  You aren’t like that at all – I know what to expect when I come into your restaurant, your menu is two pages, and you prepare it all consistently well.

5.   I am greeted upon arrival by someone friendly.  It might not be the host, who may be off seating other people.  But someone is always at the door to welcome me and, if need be, beg my patience whilst you seat the parties in front of me.  I really dig seeing that friendly face who has remembered my name now that I am a regular.  (One favorite breakfast place is small and their server greets me from across the room with a “Hey there! Sit wherever you’d like.”  That’s the diner equivalent of being met at the door and is totally awesome!)  I was just bragging to a friend about how you know me and always try to give me my favorite table.

4.  I am always served promptly, and requests to take my meal slow are no problem.  No, it’s not an oxymoron.  Prompt service after seating makes me feel important.  When I want to take my time and not rush through my meal, you are happy to let me linger over conversation with my companions and a bottle of wine.  You are all about happy, repeat customers, not just numbers, and I have never been rushed so that you can reseat my table.  I reward your servers for their patience, though I know that not all customers do.  But you do the right thing regardless and it keeps me coming back.

3.  It is clean.  The cracks, crevices, baseboards, restrooms, bar, chairs, tables, menus, salt & pepper shakers – the whole enchilada.  Not just at opening, but also at 7:30PM, when I excuse myself from the table between courses (for my fellow diners, this represents peak dinner rush to those in the biz.  But you probably knew that since that’s your preferred time to dine out).  And I tell my friends how clean it is.

2.  You only hire quality people and you take care of them.  Oh yes, I can tell.  Ever been waited on by a bartender or server who is not feeling the love?  It shows in many ways.  Sometimes it is evident in the new faces you see every time you go back, but often one visit tells you all you need to know.  No smiles (or one made through gritted teeth), that look of exasperation, slow service, poorly cooked food, dirty surroundings, oh – silly me.  I’m repeating myself.

1. The food is always good.  I say again, I am here for the food.  When you make a mistake, you refer to number 4 above.  That leaves me in a position to say that the food is always good.  No complaints here.  You make about 5 starters, 12 entrées, and 5 desserts and they are all good.  Compared to other places, I would say that your food is great.  Maybe it’s because you just offer relatively few things compared to some places, so your cooks are able to focus on preparing them really well.  All I know is the food is good and I keep coming back.

<insert pregnant pause>

For the restaurateurs out there, I’m going to let you marinate in that for a bit.  Knowing me, I’m sure there will be some follow-up blog post in the future.  If you disagree or find fault with anything I’ve said, feel free to let me know.  But before you do, bear in mind two things:  1) Sometimes we protest the loudest about things that hit a little too close to home (I call this the mirror effect – seeing the truth can be very uncomfortable); and 2) The customer is always right.

For my fellow diners, I encourage you to chime in with the things that keep you going back to your favorite restaurants.  I’d like to hear what makes you a happy “regular” customer!


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