Champions on the Rock
After two-and-half months, more than two-dozen secret ingredients and approximately 2,000 diners served, the 2011 Fire on the Rock Chefs Challenge came down to two chefs duking it out at the Hayes Performing Arts Center.
A centerpiece of the Blue Ridge Wine and Food Festival, the finals of the Fire on the Rock Chefs challenge took place April 17 and featured Chef Michael Barbato and his team from the Manor House at Chetola Resort versus Chef Nicole Palazzo and her team from Sorrento's Bistro in Banner Elk.
Palazzo, the only female chef of the entire competition, was attempting to be the first "queen of cuisine" in the five-year-old chefs challenge.
But it was not to be.
Barbato outscored Chef Palazzo 223 to 203 during a final competition that featured striped bass as its central ingredient. Each chef team had an hour to prepare three unique dishes. Those dishes were then presented to a panel of judges, including professional restaurant reviewer John Batchelor, Southern Living magazine writer Shirley Harrington and food editor of Raleigh-based Metro magazine Moreton Neal.
Barbato's team included Hunter Hallmark and Colin Hendricks.
Palazzo and her team prepared blackened striped bass with a corn and avocado relish, bass with a lemon beurre blanc on a potato cake, and pan-seared striped bass with a roasted red pepper cream sauce.
Barbato and his team countered with a trio plate featuring smoked bass and side dishes, parmesan-encrusted striped bass with lemon caper sauce, and black sesame and chili-encrusted striped bass.
The preliminary rounds of the 2011 Fire on the Rock competition took place at Crippen's Country Inn and Restaurant during weeknight duals in February and March. Each event attracted more than 100 diners who served as guests and judges during the single elimination tournament.
Unlike the semifinals and finals at the Hayes Center, for the preliminary rounds, both teams had more than six hours to prepare their three dishes after learning the identity of the secret ingredient.
"It was much more challenging to prepare three dishes in an hour," Barbato said. "In fact, we really had a little less than a full hour because we had to plate our dishes before time ran out."
The shorter preparation time, much like on Food TV's "Iron Chef" competition program, prevented the chef teams from utilizing some techniques, such as slow smoking.
"I was pleased with all three of our dishes," Barbato said. "Colin's was very unique with three separate dishes, Hunter's dish had a Spanish flavor, while mine explored Southwestern cooking."
For his team's final dish, Barbato created a blueberry/basil sorbet that every judge mentioned as being superb.
"I am familiar with striped bass, so it wasn't as challenging as some of the secret ingredients we encountered in the preliminary rounds," Barbato said. "I would say the most difficult ingredient was pork bellies and shoulders. Every chef wants to create some sort of a dessert for his final dish, because diners expect to finish the meal with something sweet. We created a bacon and bourbon ice cream with peanut brittle that went over really well."
Barbato has been the executive chef at Chetola Resort's Manor House Restaurant for the past five years and has competed in the Fire on the Rock Chefs Challenge since its inception.
During the semifinals of the competition on Saturday at the Hayes Center, Palazzo defeated Chef James Welch of the Green Park Inn, while Barbato defeated Chef Michael Foreman of Bistro Roca.
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