Fire on the Rock ignites

Article Published: Feb. 2, 2012 | Modified: Feb. 2, 2012
Fire on the Rock ignites

Team Crave chefs Marla Stern, left, and Jessica Grogan walk out of the mobile pantry after inspecting the new Fire on the Rock truck Tuesday.

Photo by Jeff Eason

When an event gets big enough to warrant its own truck, you know it has made the big time.

The seventh annual Fire on the Rock Chefs Challenge started this week in Blowing Rock with several new twists, including its own Southern Foods ingredient truck. Chefs competing in the event will select their ingredients from this mobile Southern Foods pantry, one that includes its own walk-in cooler.

Fire on the Rock 2012 began this past Tuesday with one of the more interesting match-ups of the 16-chef single-elimination tournament. Chef Jessica Grogan of Crave participated in her first-ever Fire on the Rock challenge against the defending 2011 champion of the event, Michael Barbato of Timberlake’s at Chetola Resort (formerly the Manor House Restaurant).

It was truly a battle of boys versus girls as Barbato’s chef team included Jason Phipps and Kyle Booker, while Grogan’s consisted of her mother, Marla Stern, and Crave cook Tondra MacLeod.

According to Fire on the Rock creator and host Jimmy Crippen, the new Southern Foods Fire on the Rock truck will soon be decorated with images of the chefs, the events logo and other decorations.
“During the competitions, all of the ingredients will come off of the truck except for wines, liquors and a few other items,” said Stan Chamberlain, the returning “chef ref” of Fire on the Rock.

The Fire on the Rock truck will also serve as Crippen’s home away from home later this year when he hosts the three new competitions that make up the new statewide Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series.

Fire on the Dock will take place in Wilmington March 27 through May 22; Fire on the Triangle will take place in Raleigh June 3 through July 23; and Fire on the Triad in Greensboro will take place Aug. 14 through Oct. 10.

All four competitions will feature 16 chefs in a single-elimination format. At stake in each series is a grand prize of $2,000 and a coveted red chef jacket. According to Susan Dosier of the D.K. Communications Group, the publicity arm of the Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series, plans are under way to hold some sort of grand finale, featuring the winners of all four regions.

For 2012, Fire on the Rock has enveiled a completely new voting system, which streamlines the entire procedure. For each of the six courses, diners give a 0 to 5 score for categories, such as appearance, aroma, taste, accompaniments (sauces and sides) and how well the chefs utilize that evening’s “secret ingredient” (an ingredient that must be present in all six dishes).

At Tuesday evening’s chef challenge, all of the diners were given their own individual Q.R. code attached to their ballots. After registering at the official Fire on the Rock website, diners were able to tabulate their scores after each dish through the use of smart phones and other electronic devices. At most tables, folks who didn’t have these devices were assisted by diners who did, making the voting process nearly instantaneous. The result was a much shorter wait after the competition for the announcement of the results.

Also new this year are two big screens in the middle of Crippen’s dinging room. They are used to present short introductions to the chefs plus other informative videos. The videos were created by Tom Santay Productions.

This Week’s Results

As with all of the Fire on the Rock challenges, one of the biggest moments happens at noon on the day of the competition. On Tuesday, hours before the first dinner guests arrive at the restaurant, Crippen gathers both chef teams, chef ref Chamberlain and Southern Foods representative Laurence Willard in the dining room for a brief run-through of the rules and the revealing of that evening’s secret ingredient.

Each competition’s secret ingredient must be used in all six course that the teams create during the afternoon. The secret ingredient is also a key factor in the diners’ ballots.

Tuesday’s secret ingredient was a selection of sweet potatoes from Saura Pride. More specifically, North Carolina-grown purple Stoke sweet potatoes, O’Henry white sweet potatoes and classic orange sweet potatoes from Stokes County.

The six dishes created from the sweet potatoes included a ravioli stuffed with goat cheese and purple sweet potato with red pepper sauce, vegetable slaw, grilled shrimp and fresh thyme; a braised pork belly with sweet potato maple sauce, apple bacon and sweet potato hash; seared leg of lamb with sweet potato sauce over a polenta cake; pork tenderloin with sweet potato hash and a rosemary-infused sweet potato bourbon butter; bread pudding with sweet potato ice cream with cranberries and chocolate-cocnut sauce; and a sweet potato chocolate torte with a salted rum caramel and sweet potato gelato.

After a quick tabulation of the votes, Crippen announced to the dining room that Chef Grogan and Team Crave had defeated Chef Barbato and Team Timberlake’s by an average score of 77 to 66 per dish.

Team Grogan will return to Crippen’s on Tuesday, March 6, to face the winner of the Feb. 21 battle between Chef Guy Thomas from Glidewell’s and Chef Matt Barlow from Table at Crestwood.

Wednesday evening’s Fire on the Rock saw a battle between James Welch of the Green Park Inn’s Laurel Room and Nate Curtis of Rowland’s Restaurant at Westglow Resort and Spa, with Welch winning the contest.

In a culinary battle utilizing the secret ingredient of Carolina catfish, Welch's chef team scored a 70 percent average per dish mark on the diners' scorecards compared to 67 for Curtis' team.

Future Fire on the Rock chef battles include Monte Weber of the Painted Fish Café vs. Hunter Hallmark of Restaurant G at Gideon Ridge (Feb.7), Michael Foreman of Bistro Roca vs. Josh Grogan of Hearthstone Tavern and Grille (Feb. 8), Guy Thomas of Glidewell’s vs. Matt Barlow at the Table at Crestwood (Feb. 21), Randall Isaacs of the 1861 Farmhouse Restaurant and Winery vs. Gina Paolucci of Paolucci’s Italian Bar & Grill (Feb. 22), Sam Ratchford of Vidalia Restaurant vs. Matt Martin of Café Portofino, and Matt Franklin of Jackalope’s View vs. Andrew Long of Storie Street Grille.

Semifinal matches will take place March 6 through 14, and the finals will be held at Crippen’s on April 11. For more information, or to make reservations, call Crippen’s at (828) 295-3487 or visit

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