Monday, June 25, 2012

Competition Dining's secret ingredients: camaraderie and fun

For the past seven years, Jimmy Crippen has been inviting guest chefs into the kitchen of his acclaimed Blowing Rock restaurant, where they have dazzled local diners.

“I’d say to my friends, “Come to my kitchen and let’s play a game,’” said the good-humored entrepreneur, who staged a series of Iron Chef-inspired cook-offs at Crippen’s Country Inn and Restaurant. “Let’s face it: Chefs are performers. You don’t open a restaurant unless you think you can feed people better than someone else can.”

What started as a way to draw customers on typically slow or off-season nights – while at the same time giving highly-regarded chefs a chance to get out of their own kitchens and meet other people in the industry – this year morphed into a series of regional Competitive Dining events. The first was the Fire on the Rock contest in the High Country, in which Chef Michael Foreman of Bistro Roca in Blowing Rock reigned supreme and claimed the $2,000 prize. In April and May, Crippen took his road show to Wilmington, where Chef Andrew Hopper of Chefs 105 in Morehead City emerged as champion of the Fire in the Dock contest.

The Raleigh-based Fire in the Triangle competition launched on June 11 and will conclude on July 31. The sold-out spectacles are held on Mondays and Tuesdays at 1705 Prime, located at 1705 Millbrook Road. The elegant North Raleigh facility is the catering hub of Rocky Top Hospitality, which includes Twisted Fork, Tribeca Tavern and the Daily Planet Café in the new Nature Research Center, among others.

Tonight’s challenge will pit Raleigh chefs Michael Lee of Sono against Dean Wendel of Flights. Competitors are not told what each event’s mystery ingredient is until a few hours before the doors open at 6:30 p.m.  It is selected and sourced in collaboration with the Southern Foods distributing and the Got to Be NC program of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. As with Iron Chef, the special ingredient must be prominent in each course, supplemented only by what is provided in an extensive pantry, and produced entirely on site.

Jimmy Crippen, founder of the Competition Dining series
While chefs strive to impress judges with expertly prepared and plated creations, teams also are responsible for providing an example of each course to about 120 paying guests. Diners get to participate in a popular vote and are encouraged to post comments on Twitter at #CompDiningNC.

In addition to an exhilarating evening of fine dining, Crippen is hopeful that participants will gain a heightened appreciation for the quality of locally sourced ingredients.

“We really try to keep the focus on building an awareness of the amazing resources that our state has to offer,” said Crippen, adding that home cooks also will concoct great meals if they start with fresh ingredient from local growers. “It’s a nice marriage to be able to promote the chefs, the agriculture and the whole sustainable lifestyle.”

So far, required ingredients in the first five weeks of the Raleigh competition have ranged from blueberries and Butterball turkeys to mustard, eggs and cantaloupe. Crippen said he's been impressed by watching chefs work their magic with the day's selection – which, while varied, have not been as bizarre as some previous challenges.

“One of the weirdest things to come out of these was Battle Beef, where you had to use the entire cow,” he recalled. “One of the chefs made a beef tongue bread pudding, which he smartly disguised as ‘Lingua Bread Pudding.’ It wound up getting the highest marks and won the competition for him.”

While Crippen himself has never competed in any of the events, even when they were based in his kitchen, he clearly relishes his role in choreographing the contests.

“I feel like Gene Kelly with an umbrella doing Singin’ in the Rain,” he said. “There’s all the insanity around you, but it’s so much fun you just want to dance with it.”

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