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!

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!”

Competition Dining in NC: Goodness Grows a Winner!

7 04 2012

If you’ve seen the show Iron Chef America on the Food Network, and I assume you have if you’re a foodie like me, then I have good news.  We done growed ourselves a fancy cookin’ competition right here in North Carolina!  You can attend the battles, taste the food, and be the judge.  Sound interesting?  Then get yourself over to the Competition Dining website and make your reservation for an upcoming event.

The Roots.

The competition began its life as a chef show-down with the local talent in Blowing Rock, NC.  Entitled ‘Fire on the Rock’, the competition was the brainchild of Jimmy Crippens, a local restaurateur and innkeeper.  As I understand it, Jimmy’s hard work and persuasive way convinced the NC Department of Agriculture and numerous key sponsors to buy into his vision to make this a State-wide competition – but don’t quote me on that.  That’s just the scuttle I’ve pieced together so far.  Maybe Jimmy will grant me an interview so I can check facts and get the details.  For now, I’m glad it happened however it did – it’s a much needed opportunity for the many talented people manning the stoves at our burgeoning bevy of fabulous restaurants to be recognized for their talent.  Plus, this is a super tasty opportunity for those of us who fancy ourselves amateur food critics.  Ahem.

The Branches.

This growing program (pun intended) is now known as the “Got to be NC Competition Dining Series” of which ‘Fire on the Rock’ is the first round of competition, held in February and March in Blowing Rock.  I am told the final battle is April 11th at Crippens where the champion will be determined (don’t bother, it’s sold out).  Added to the series for the first time this year are:  ‘Fire on the Dock’ based in Wrightsville Beach hosting competitors from Coastal NC restaurants, happening right now in April and May; ‘Fire in the Triangle’ based in Raleigh, hosting battling chefs from the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area in June and July; and ‘Fire in the Triad’ based in Greensboro, with chefs from the Greensboro-Winston Salem-High Point region going head to head in August and September.  I thought I heard that there will be a final battle amongst the regional winners for an overall State Championship.  We’ll await confirmation of that from the powers that be.  Road trip, anyone?

For the uninitiated, the NC Department of Agriculture has programs to support growers and other food purveyors in the state entitled “Got to be NC” and “Goodness Grows in NC.”  Hence the title of the competition series and my article, respectively.

The Leaves.

Each of these regional competitions sports 15 individual battles from which you can choose.  This is a pyramid competition, so the winners of the initial 8 rounds compete against each other in the ensuing 4 battles with the top two competing for the regional title in a 15th and final round.  Perhaps a few of you can afford to attend an entire series, but at $49 plus tax and a 20% automatic gratuity ($62.11 in my neck of the woods) per person, per event, it is beyond my budget to attend them all.  Trust me, I wish I could.  Even the dishes that weren’t winners were interesting and pretty good eats all things considered.  But I digress.

So you can go to the website, find out when your favorite restaurant chef is competing, and reserve a seat to cheer him or her on.  If you are adventurous like me, you can attend on a night when you do not know the chefs or their restaurants – that was great fun and good food.  You can watch a video introduction to many of the chefs, or at least read a quick bit about them.  You reserve and pay directly on the website using PayPal or your credit card.  Easy peasy.

Attending the Battles

The individual competitions are great fun – dramatic music, video presentations, and Jimmy himself as your emcee.  He’s quite the character, so I’m sure you’ll enjoy him.  Each battle entails six courses, three from each chef competitor.  The secret ingredient is revealed to the competitors at noon on the day of the battle, and their creativity is limited to a pantry provided by sponsors, primarily Southern Foods, a wholesale purveyor of food.  The secret ingredient must be featured in every dish they prepare, and all the secret ingredients are North Carolina products.  Thus far

during Fire on the Dock, we have seen Flounder, Cheerwine, Bison, and Curry – yes CURRY made in NC – used as secret ingredients.  Up at Fire on the Rock, they had battles with mustard, lavender & cinnamon, catfish, sturgeon, beef, grits, purple sweet potatoes, and whole mess of other unexpected ingredients – even guinea fowl!

Battle Bison - from James Doss of Rx

If you go, you just don’t know what you might be eating – vegetarians are forewarned!  If you have food allergies, you can let them know when you reserve on the website, and every effort will be made to accommodate you.  I’m sure Battle Peanut is coming up sometime – or maybe they plan to skip that one due to the prevalence of allergies these days.  Time will tell, or maybe Jimmy will.  For me, I’m all about some peanuts.  Grass – think yard here people, nothing with an M – that’s my allergy.  So I think I’m all set.

For those that imbibe, there is a full cash bar available as well as samples of featured wines provided at your table.  So get you a cocktail – it’ll keep you busy during the preliminaries.  You will have time between courses to stretch your legs – sometimes 5-10 minutes, sometimes a bit more.  If you go to one of the Fire on the Dock events at Shell Island on Wrightsville Beach, take this opportunity to step out back and enjoy the ocean views.  But don’t stray too far…it won’t be long until the next course is served!

You will check in and be escorted to your assigned seat, which seems to be part of some master plan.  It must be top secret, because I have no clue why they sat me where they did either time.  I ended up next to a friend I hadn’t seen in a while the last time, and that was mighty fine with me.  If you want to be seated with friends, put that in the information box when reserving online and it will happen.

Do remember that this is fine dining. Appropriate attire is, well, appropriate.

You – Diner & Judge

This is a very well thought out event, folks.  The voting is high tech with low tech options available.  If you like paper and pen, they have that – a ballot is at each seat.  The event staff will enter your votes for you throughout the evening.  If you have a smart phone, there is an app for that – yup.  And they are thoughtful enough to have a free Wi-Fi connection set up for your use.  I can imagine this keen organization being an experiential development, with an underlying theme such as, “Let nothing interfere with the voting or we’ll be here until midnight.”

Somewhere during your initiation you find out the judging is blind.  You will not watch them cook, and you will not know which dish is whose until the votes are tallied.  It’s only fair, really.  I don’t know about the rest of the state, but we have some serious chef fans here on the coast who would mob one of these events and unfairly tilt the competition in their beloved’s direction if they knew who made what.  I’m just sayin’.

So they talk you through getting all set up with the voting process, and a bit about how to score.  You get some obligatory talking-to from the sponsors and vendors (we enjoyed a kitchen fire safety talk from the New Hanover County Fire Department, among others), and finally an introduction to each of the competitors by Jimmy.  But see the chefs you will not until the end – they are busy fixin’ to feed you and tryin’ to win this thing!

Food begins to arrive from the kitchen and everyone casts their votes.  You judge each dish in five categories with a maximum of five points per category, or 30 points total per dish.  Zero is inedible, five is superior.  The categories are Presentation, Aroma, Taste – and with regard to the secret ingredient specifically – Creativity, and Execution.  As you will be warned, it is useless to try to guess which dish was made by your favorite chef – Jimmy likes to say “even wives have been wrong” – so just judge each dish on its merits.  The true winner will emerge.  If it is not your guy or gal, it’ll be OK.  You can still go to their restaurant every Friday.

The entertainment continues throughout with Jimmy at the helm – regaling you with tales, and introducing pre-recorded video interviews of the chefs.  I thought it a nice touch, since we could not see the action in the kitchen, even though I had watched the videos on the website.  When the dining is happening in earnest, there is soft music with the occasional rumblings of the theme from “Rocky,” which is played at much higher volumes at beginning and end.  Oh yeah.  Mood music.

Finally, with the votes tallied, the competitors emerge from the kitchens with their teams (one in-house kitchen and one tractor trailer kitchen are used).  Introductions are made, post-battle reflections are shared, and the ‘who-made-what’ begins.  Once the winner is announced, it’s pandemonium.  Fight the crowds to congratulate the winner, or make your way home.  Ladies and gentleman, it’s a wrap.

By the way, if you were wondering about that bar tab that you ran up, it’s all good.  Your server has already collected your payment somewhere back around the fifth course.  See?  This is a well-oiled machine.  Check the website tomorrow morning for pictures, including action shots from the kitchen.  Follow the competition on Twitter @CompDiningNC or like them on Facebook for more comments, pictures, and course by course action during events.

Go on, make the reservation.  It’s a blast if you are into good food, fancy yourself a kitchen smarty like me, or just need a good meal and want to try something new.


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