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!

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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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!”


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