The Sweet Sixteen

Article Published: Jan. 19, 2012 | Modified: Jan. 31, 2012
The Sweet Sixteen

The 2012 Fire on the Rock Chef Challenge will feature 15 head-to-head elimination dinners culminating in the championship April 11. This year’s featured chefs are Michael Barbato, Jessica Grogan, Guy Thomas, Mart Barlow, Monte Weber, Hunter Hallmark, Sam Ratchford, Matt Martin, James Welch (not pictured), Nate Curtis, Randall Isaacs, Gina Paolucci, Michael Foreman, Josh Grogan, Matt Franklin and Andrew Long.

Photo by Jeff Eason

Each year, the Fire on the Rock Chef Challenge just keeps getting bigger and better.

This year, it has exploded from a regional phenomenon into a statewide competition.

In addition to the 16-chef Fire on the Rock Chef Challenge held in the High Country, the event has added three other competitions that will be held in various parts of the state.

Fire on the Dock will be held in Wilmington, Fire in the Triangle will be held in the Research Triangle, and Fire in the Triad will be held in Greensboro and Winston-Salem.

Jimmy Crippen, creator of the event and owner of Crippen’s Country Inn & Restaurant in Blowing Rock, will emcee all four of the statewide events.

“Our mountain boys and girls have been doing this for six years, now we’re pushing it across the state,” Crippen said Tuesday at a introductory meeting for this year’s Fire on the Rock.

Also present at the meeting were 15 of the 16 participating Fire on the Rock chefs and Debbie Gruber, a representative of Southern Foods, a new sponsor of the event.

In addition to a new sponsor, the event got a new name that will serve as an umbrella for all four of the competitions: The “Got to Be NC” Competition Dining Series. The series is sponsored by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and will focus on foods from the state’s farms and coast.

This year’s Fire on the Rock Chef Challenge begins on Tuesday, Jan. 31, when defending champion Michael Barbato of Timberlake’s at Chetola Resort (formerly The Manor House) faces off against Crave’s Jessica Grogan.

On Wednesday, Feb. 1, Nate Curtis of Roland’s Restaurant at Westglow will face James Welch of the Laurel Room at the Green Park Inn.

Future matches include Painted Fish’s Monte Weber versus Gideon Ridge’s Hunter Hallmark (Feb. 7), Bistro Roca’s Michael Foreman versus Hearthstone’s Josh Grogan (Feb. 8), Glidewell’s Guy Thomas versus the Inn at Crestwood’s Matt Barlow (Feb. 21), 1861 Farmhouse’s Randall Isaacs versus Paolucci’s Gina Paolucci (Feb. 22), Vidalia’s Sam Ratchford versus Café Portofino’s Matt Martin (Feb. 28) and Jackalope View’s Matt Franklin versus Storie Street Grille’s Andrew Long.

Quarterfinal rounds will be held on March 6, 7, 13 and 14. Semifinal rounds will be held on March 20 and 21. The championship will be held at Crippen’s in Blowing Rock on Wednesday, April 11, in conjunction with the opening of the 2012 Blue Ridge Wine and Food Festival.

This year’s Fire on the Rock competition features its first husband-wife competitors: Josh Grogan of Hearthstone Tavern & Grille and Jessica Grogan of Crave. The way the brackets are set up, the only way the two Grogans could face each other would be in the grand finale.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, Fire on the Rock is an annual chefs challenge that takes place at Crippen’s in Blowing Rock. On the day of each competition, chefs and their two-person cooking teams meet at noon to find out what the secret ingredient will be. After that, they create three culinary items each, using the secret ingredient. Guests arrive at 6:30 p.m. and taste a total of six dishes, judging them on taste, appearance and use of secret ingredient — all without knowing which chef created which dish.

At the end of the night, the votes are tallied, and one chef moves on in the competition while the other is eliminated.

What are the chefs competing for, you ask? Well, there’s fame, glory, the coveted red chef jacket and a grand prize of $2,000.

New wrinkles in this year’s competition include the elimination of the “bag of tricks,” ingredients like special spices that chef teams were allowed to bring with them in the past. This year’s competition will also feature new digital voting where diners at the Fire on the Rock events can use their smart phones or iPads to cast their votes. There will also be a panel of professional judges at each event and their votes will count for 30 percent of the total.

Crippen’s has also added a pre-paid reservation service so that diners can pay for their meals ahead of time to avoid the crush at the register after each event.

Fire on the Rock dinners are $49 per person, excluding tax, gratuity and beverages. For the semifinal and final events, the dinners are $59 per person, excluding tax, gratuity and beverages. Those events will include special, top shelf secret ingredients.

Beat It
Got restaurant news? Email editor Frank Ruggiero at ( or call (828) 264-6397.

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