Last night, I judged the first competition in the Fire in the Triangle contest.
For those of you who don't know, Fire in the Triangle is a franchise of the annual Fire on the Rock contest started several years ago by Jimmy Crippen of Crippen's Country Inn and Restaurant in Blowing Rock, N.C. This year, Crippen paired up with the N.C. Department of Agriculture's Go to Be NC campaign to take the contest statewide. Fire on the Rock and Fire on the Dock in the Wilmington area have already happened. (Go HERE to read my earlier post.)
The contest pits 16 chefs against each other in a series of cooking contests where the public gets to enjoy the chefs' creations. For about $50, diners enjoy a six-course meal and get to vote on which chef should move onto the next round.
The deal is there were two professional judges: myself and Tara Whitfield of WRAL. Our votes accounted for 30 percent of the score, while the 100 other diners' scores made up 70 percent of the score. Also at our table was Matt Lardie of greeneatsblog who was the event's official blogger (go HERE to read his account), John Huisman of Triangle Exlporer blog, Dathan Kazsuk, aka @TBJFlash and visual editor for the Triangle Business Journal who is going to attend every single dinner (I don't envy him that gluttony) and Kitty Kinnin of 100.7 The River.
The trick was we didn't know which chefs prepared which dishes and the use of the secret ingredient accounted for a third of the possible points.
So here we go, the first course was a Blue Crab Blueberry Roasted Chile Gazpacho with Black Quinoa and Polenta Frites. It was delicious and one of my favorite dishes of the night. It had some heat, some richness from the crab and the polenta frites and then a scattering of blueberries. It was not a great use of the secret ingredient but they were incorporated into the dish. (This turned out to be Shane Ingram's dish.)
The second course was a Blueberry Pheasant Pad Thai with Shaved White Asparagus Salad. This dish disappointed me because I couldn't detect any blueberries. (There are no blueberries in this photo.) Although on my plate, there were two lone blueberries alongside the pad thai almost like a garnish. The use secret ingredient came across as an afterthought. (This turned out to be Shane Ingram's dish.)
The third dish was a Chorizo Blueberry-stuffed Shrimp with Roasted White Asparagus and a Blueberry Coffee Reduction. As you can see, it was a beautiful dish This was a favorite of mine and many folks at my table. As Jimmy Crippen says, "Bacon often wins." (This was a dish from chef Adam Jones.)
The fourth dish was a Grilled Blueberry and Sage Rubbed Pheasant with Lemon Sage Rissotto, Charred French Beans and Shiitake Mushrooms. This dish certainly made use of the secret ingredient: the bird was blue. The mushrooms were the most delicious items on the plate but I wasn't a big fan. (This was another Adam Jones' dish.)
Finally, the desserts came out. First up was a Grilled Vanilla Bean Pound Cake with Roasted Blueberries, Lime Crumble, Jalapeno Mint Syrup and Toasted Meringue. This dish was the star course of the event. Everyone raved about it. That jalapeno mint syrup was amazing. It was the work of "pastry boy" or Shane Ingram's pastry chef, Stephen Kennedy.
That was followed by Adam Jones' tribute to his father whose birthday was last night and who was dining at the event: a Blueberry Ginger Cobbler, Bourbon Biscuit and Mint Cream.
Ingram's team was declared the winner. Afterward, Ingram said he learned a lot from the experience that will help him in the next round from preparation to the speed the dishes have to leave the kitchen. "I'm so glad I got another chance," Ingram says. "I'll be so better prepared for the next time."
If you want to join the dining action, only three of the semifinal meals still have seats available. Go HERE to purchase tickets.