Last night was the inaugural evening of Charlotte’s Fire in the City series of Competition Dining . While guests were excited for the evening to begin, not many of those in attendance really knew what to expect of the evening; but the Bonterra Dining room was filled to near capacity nonetheless and you could feel the anticipation in the air.
Enthusiastic guests starting arriving early to enjoy Bonterra’s charming bar before the culinary battle began.
Juice Distributors, the official wine sponsor of Competition Dining NC, presented a tasty selection of wines both from the glass or bottle; and of course the award wining wine and liquor selection behind the Bonterra bar was also available for Competition Dinner diners to order and enjoy.
Working the crowd, I ran into several familiar faces, each excited and anxious about the evening to come. Some were dedicated fans of each of the participating chefs or restaurants; others just came for the fun of it all. Fun is a huge part of the Competition Dining series – in fact its the first rule for chefs and patrons. In surveying the crowd throughout the evening I would say “mission accomplished” for this the kick off dinner of the Queen City series.
Also in attendance were representatives from several Competition Dining sponsors such as Pate Dawson Southern Foods and Swisher
Hygene.On the list of invited guests were three culinary professionals who took the role of the official judges ( The Pros) for the evening – Chef Fred Tiess from Johnson & Wales; Chef David Quintana from Southminster and Chef Lewis Donald from Providence Country Club.
Special media and celebrity guests this inaugural evening included Cat Harris from Edible Charlotte Magazine and WBTV’s own Kristen Miranda and Kelly Franson.
While everyone in attendance at a Competition Dining dinner is a judge and votes via a fun smart phone app on each dish, the voting Is weighted with the three professional judges – “The Pros” carrying 30% of the final score on each plate; while the rest of us – “The regular Joes” votes go to 70% of each score.
The idea is to vote seriously on taste, texture, aroma, presentations and the use of the secret ingredient in each dish but to have fun with all along the way. While everyone knows what they like and what tastes good or bad, what “The Pros” bring to the table is a knowledge of culinary terms and correct use of technique that the regular Joes may not notice.
Instagram and Competition Dining’s Facebook Page were burning up as guests posted photos of their favorite dishes; and Twitter feeds were all “atweet” with chatter about the dinner as each plate was presented.
WBTV’s Kristen Miranda and Kelly Franson may have been the Queens of Twitter for this evening – posting so many photos that one of Kristen’s WBTV co-workers thought these were dishes she was cooking herself!
The six different courses presented during the evening all revolve around a secret ingredient, revealed to chefs at noon, and to dinners in a video presentation as soon as everyone is seated.
The fun of the evening is that while you know which chefs are preparing the meal, you don’t know what you’ll be eating until it is presented and you don’t know who prepared each dish until the meal is done. But its always fun to guess… As I chatted with eager guests before the big reveal, I inquired as to any speculation on what the secret “Got to be NC” ingredient this night might be?
Conjectures included sweet potato, trout, oysters, okra, dairy and produce – “Of course it wouldn’t be a protein,” one person said… Or could it?
Last night, if you were asking yourself, “Where’s the beef?” then you were obviously not in attendance at this, the first Fire in the City dinner. The secret ingredient this night was indeed a protein – Certified Angus Beef , a cut of Strip Loin to be more exact.
I was on hand early in the day as chefs prepped and fine-tuned menus and asked about the chefs first impressions – David Sully of Fish Market Grill in Ft. Mill was excited at the prospect – ” We may be a seafood restaurant, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do steak – I come from a steakhouse background, so this is great!”
Chef Phil Barnes from the Roosters South Park location seemed a bit more surprised. ‘ I didn’t know what to expect, but I just wasn’t thinking it would be a protein.”
Phil also thought there might be two secret ingredients as it often the case in Competition Dining. But what struck Phil the most was the selection of pantry ingredients the chefs had to choose from – the discovery was a happy surprise – “There are a lot more choices than I thought and its all vey high quality – we’re excited to see what the day and night will bring.”
The “pantry” for each evening of competition dining is a large refrigerated truck now settled in at home in the Bonterra parking lot. the first section of the truck is dry pantry space and the behind a door is the refrigerated space. The truck is loaded and monitored by two of Competition Dining’s “Chef Refs. ” These same two chefs present the secret ingredient to the chefs early in the day; collect the chefs menus by the 3 pm deadline and decide the order in which competing chefs dishes will be presented and help to facilitate the action and service in the kitchen. Plan to read more about the Chef Refs in an upcoming post.
Once the secret ingredient was revealed and the chefs introduced, the much anticipated dining began.
What this evening brought was a beefy six-course repast, 6 hardworking chefs and 120 very excited guests. As I informally surveyed the room, by far the favorite two dishes of the evening were the first dish served – Phil Barnes’ steak tartar and David Sullivans’ smoked surf and turf.
Among the dining guests and judges were several professional chefs and almost without exception, these chefs thought their two competing colleagues played it safe.
“There was nothing that was really “out there”,” one chef noted, while another indicated that he had expected more. Perhaps, but this food writer would be doing both culinary teams a big disservice if I were hesitant to point out that’s is much easier to comment from the sidelines, than to be in the heat of the battle.
While dishes may indeed have been safe, they were, for the most part, well executed and much enjoyed.
The biggest caveats noted at our table fell to Sullivan’s Kushikatsu. This breaded and fried thin-cut slice was overcooked; and judges noted, given an incorrect moniker. Kushikatsu is actually a breaded and lightly fried beef kabob, while this presentation was instead comprised of two small slices of breaded beef, still oily from the fryer – more like a poorly executed chicken fried steak.
To my mind, this may have been the dish that brought Sullivan down as all the scored were very close.
Barnes’ presentations were more consistent, but not without a few flaws of their own. Farro risotto was flavorful but undercooked and not as creamy as risotto should be. His creative pho was good and the beef here very tender but ,for some, the broth was overly seasoned with the hot and spicy ginger.
Since I had been in the kitchen earlier, and had an idea of what Barnes and Sullivan were making, I removed myself from the voting this night; but I agreed with the crowd that the tartar was certainly the most interesting dish of the evening. Aside from the fact that it was a gutsy and ( for me) much appreciated move to serve raw beef – this dish had acid and texture – two important factors missing on a lot of the evening’s plates that followed. Sully’s smoked beef dish offered the same balance of both texture and flavor found missing on other courses.
Despite all the little ups and downs, the evening was enjoyed by all, many indicating that while this was their first NC Competition Dining dinner it wouldn’t be their last.
Course 1 – Phil Barnes, Rooster’s- Certified Angus Beef® Steak Tartare, Baby Arugula, Pickled Red & Golden Beets, Chili Aioli, Fried Capers – score 19.9
Course 2 – David Sullivan, Fish Market Certified Angus Beef® Kushikatsu, Wild Mushroom, Bok Choy, Citrus-Ginger Ponzu – score 16.8
Course 3- Phil Barnes, Rooster’s Certified Angus Beef® Wood Grilled Strip, Farro Risotto, Cipollini Onion, Oyster Mushrooms, Eggplant Caponata – Score 18.0
Course 4 – David Sullivan, Fish Market – Smoked Surf & Turf, Certified Angus Beef® & Shrimp, Fried Yucca, Heirloom Tomato, Arugula & Spinach Salad, Black & Blueberry Chimichurri – Score 19.1
Course 5 Pho – Phil Barnes, Rooster’s, Certified Angus Beef® Strip, Collard Greens, Fennel, Smoked Cheshire Pork Belly, Heirloom Tomatoes, Pear & Ginger -Score 18.5
Course 6 – David Sullivan, Fish Market – Porcini Crusted Certified Angus Beef® Medallion, Burgundy Demi, Butter Poached Lobster Claws & Blue Crab, Caramelized Pepper Risotto, Grilled Asparagus – Score 16.3