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.
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 make 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.
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