End of Round One
And then there were eight.
The final two preliminary rounds of the seventh annual Fire on the Rock Chefs Challenge played out at Crippen’s in Blowing Rock this week, narrowing the field to eight competitors.
On Tuesday evening, Chef Sam Ratchford from Vidalia and his team of Julius Kalman and Hayden Watson faced Chef Matt Martin of Café Portofino and his team of Lon Baxter and Danny Bock.
Caleb Crowell of the New River Organic Growers Association met with the chef teams in the dining room of Crippen’s at noon Tuesday to reveal the secret ingredient for that night’s service.
Locally grown, yet exotic, the secret ingredient was four unusual root vegetables: sunchoke (a type of sunflower root that can be used like a potato), Spanish black radish, watermelon radish and French breakfast radish.
With directions from chef ref Stan Chamberlain and Southern Foods representative Lawrence Willard, the chefs began to create the menu for that evening.
Each of the eight preliminary rounds of the Fire on the Rock Chefs Challenge has featured two of the High Country’s premiere chefs facing off in a single elimination battle. Next week, the final eight will begin in the semifinals, with the championship battle set for April 11, during the annual Blue Ridge Wine and Food Festival in Blowing Rock.
This year, for the first time, Fire on the Rock is part of the new “Got to Be NC” Competition Dining Series. Sponsored by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Southern Foods, it will be followed this year by Fire on the Dock in Wilmington, Fire in the Triangle in Raleigh and Fire in the Triad in Greensboro.
During Tuesday evening’s “Battle Sunchoke and Radishes,” Martin and his team created a braised barbecue lamb slider with sunchoke basil bun, watermelon radish, barbecue sauce and coconut curry sauce; wood-fired grilled breast of duck seasoned with cinnamon and sugar, Spanish black radish slaw, ginger sunchoke potato mash and blueberry puree; and a candied sunchoke and d’avignon with puff pastry, lavendar honey and Perfect Puree mandarin tangerine coulis.
Ratchford countered with a gingered watermelon radish and pork spring roll with Perfect Puree prickly pear sauce, spiced sunchoke coulis, dressed mixed greens and crispy glass noodles; seared flank steak and lobster croquet with polenta fry, veal demi-glace, pink sea salt and white truffle French breakfast radish, snap pea and sunchoke vinaigrette salad; and spiced sunchoke gateau cake with pickled watermelon radish ice cream, caramel and Perfect Puree lychee coulis.
Martin’s wood-fired grilled breast of duck scored the highest of any individual dish with an average diner score of 72.2 percent. But Ratchford’s team found victory with an overall average score of 66.5 percent for its three dishes versus Team Martin’s average score of 60.1 percent.
Ratchford and his team move on to the semifinal round where they will face off against Monte Weber and the team from the Painted Fish Café on March 13.
Wednesday was Feb. 29, and, in honor of Leap Day, the Fire on the Rock Chefs Challenge utilized a secret ingredient well known for leaping, jumping and hopping: rabbit!
North Carolina’s Ashley Farms, a company specializing in all natural poultry and game, provided the rabbit meat for the competition.
Battle Rabbit featured Chef Matt Franklin of Jackalope’s View on Beech Mountain versus Chef Andrew Long of Storie Street Grille in Blowing Rock.
Franklin’s three dishes included braised rabbit leg with black lentil cassoulet and natural au jus; a duo of rabbit featuring pan-roasted tenderloin with lingonberry jus lie and roasted leg stuffed with herb sauerkraut, sherry Dijon cream; and bourbon-glazed rabbit liver with goat cheese and black pepper cheesecake and blueberry puree.
Long countered with a rabbit breakfast featuring shrimp polenta, rabbit sausage gravy and root vegetable hash; stuffed rabbit saddle with roasted cippolini, mushroom duxelle, pine nuts, chevre, braised bacon cabbage, sweet potato spaetzle, onion fennel jam and brandy peppercorn sauce; and rabbit lollipop a l’orange with brown sugar ginger ice cream and sesame brittle.
Franklin’s duo of rabbit dish earned the highest average diner score of 79.2 percent. Despite that, Chef Andrew Long’s three dishes outscored Franklin’s by a final score of 72.7 percent to 60.8.
Long will move on to face Chef Michael Foreman of Bistro Roca in the semifinal round of Fire on the Rock on March 14.