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It’s Fire on the Dock

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“Got to Be NC” Dining Competition Series

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by Vanessa E. Harris

White linen, fine china and delicate floral arrangements set the scene. The low murmur of conversation and the tinny laughs of happy and lively guests spread a tinge of excitement through the restaurant. Fire blazes on the surrounding television screens. And, out comes Jimmy Crippen to host the competition.

The heat is on! Now in it’s 3rd year, the “Got to Be NC” Dining Competition Series is electrifying the local culinary arts scene. With a unique, innovative and dynamic approach, this is a competition like none other in the United States. This year long, single elimination Iron-Chef like contest grew from humble beginnings. Years ago, restauranteur Jimmy Crippen founded and organized a small local competition between a few chefs in his hometown of tiny, scenic Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Before he knew it, the event had spread like wildfire, and now covers the whole state of North Carolina. Crippen has since shut down his beloved Crippen’s Country Inn & Restaurant to emcee this yearlong chef showdown full-time.

The fiery competition begins with preliminary regional events that slowly eliminate competitors, till two are left to duke it out in one final culinary extravaganza.

With preliminary competitions in Charlotte, Raleigh, Wilmington, Asheville and Greensboro, the Final Fire competition, with the two chefs left standing, will take place in a gourmet restaurant in Raleigh, NC in November.

Each competition, including the final showdown, features a “Mystery ingredient” that is a native North Carolina food…in year’s past this has run the gamut from Black Winter Périgord truffles to truffle honey to hybrid striped bass to Mountain Dew to grits.

The chefs must incorporate this ingredient into all courses of the 3-course meal that they present for judging. Judging is weighted 70/30, meaning that 70% of the scores tabulated come from a group of carefully selected culinary professionals and the remaining 30% comes from diners, who can purchase tickets in advance of each event. Indeed, tickets sell out fast, and the crowds are often boisterous and lively.

Crippen, who oversees each leg of this feast of the senses, enjoys the crowds of locals that create, “a vibrancy that gets my adrenaline flowing.”

As each event commences, diners sit down to an elegant and sophisticated table spread, replete with floral arrangements that boast the state’s most popular flowers, such as dark purple larkspur blossoms and dark pink swamp mallows. For hours, they nibble, devour and feast, as course after course is presented, till all six have been sampled.

Behind the scenes, it’s a madhouse, as chef’s and their teams chop, dice, slice, mix, churn and drizzle their finest ingredients to create visibly appealing and delicious dishes in the hopes of bringing their gifts to the public.

Indeed the benefits and intentions of this event are two-fold. At once trying to educate local diners and stimulate and grow the local farm-to table approach, the “Got to Be NC” Dining Competition Series is committed to putting the focus on locally-sourced fresh foods. “Our diners leave ready to support North Carolina agriculture, shop at farmers’ markets and dine with local chefs,” asserts Crippen. “Coming to [these events] is a way to enact your New Year’s resolutions to eat local.”

As such, in a state famous for Krispy Kremes, BBQ and Pepsi, this unique culinary event’s mission to turn local diners into more aware consumers is what makes this spirited event truly extraordinary.

Though there are a limited amount of positions, chefs are chosen from all throughout the state. From the toppling Appalachian Mountains, to the misty and heavily wooded Smoky Mountains, to the marshy lowland coastal areas, chosen chefs represent the diversity of all regions, as they compete for that prize of prizes, the Final Fire showdown.

Chosen chefs often specialize in areas such as Asian fusion, progressive Southern and Upscale Southern. In his mission statement, Edwin Bloodworth, a 2014 competitor in the Fire on the Rock series, states, “My competitive advantage is that we strive every day to limit ourselves to make the most out of what is seasonal and has a connection to our surroundings.” Indeed, every selected chef has a unique outlook, a distinctive flair, and a passion for bringing locally-grown products to the public.

“Every selected chef has a unique outlook, a distinctive flair, and a passion for bringing locally-grown products to the public.”

The winning dishes of 2013 included Asheville Chef Adam Hayes’ sumptuous Orange-Scented Brioche Doughnut with Truffle Honey Crème, Cashew Truffle Tuille, Saldo Zinfandel Gastrique, Caramelized White Chocolate Mousse, and Dulce de Leche, as well as his Truffle Honey Glazed Cheshire Pork Belly with Truffle Spoon Bread, Calvados Creamed Spinach, Mushroom Duxelle, Truffle Creme, Cipollini Onion Agrodolce and Yuca Chips.

Other heavenly concoctions have included: the delectable Vanilla Sablèe with Honey Truffle Peanut Puree, Dark Chocolate Cream, Toasted Black Truffle Marshmallow and Black Truffle Anglaise; the inspired Manchester Farms Stuffed Quail with Ashe County Marble Bleu & Shaved Truffle Asparagus Wrapped in Johnston County Ham, NC Baby Potato “Risotto” with Ashe County Romano, Noble Greens and a drizzle of Truffle Honey; and the tasty Certified Angus Beef Carpaccio with Black Truffle Aioli, Cured Egg Yolk, Pickled Mushrooms, Crispy Shallots, Arugula, White Balsamic Truffle Gastrique and Smoked Sea Salt Grissini.

Indeed, the rich flavors, sauces and spices mix together to create savory and distinctive dishes that can please the palates of even the most discerning of foodies, gourmands and food critics. Each leg of the series promises to be exciting, lively and surprising for all.

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