The Fire in the Triangle quarterfinal cooking competition Monday night had everything “Iron Chef” but the secret ingredient rising up into the room in a dry-ice fog. There was an ebullient host (Jimmy Crippen of Crippen’s Country Inn and Restaurant in Blowing Rock). There were dramatic introductory videos of the competitors (Serge Falcoz-Vigne of 518 West and John Childers of Herons at the Umstead). There was “Eye of the Tiger” played at a sound level suitable for an wrestling arena. But the TV show never had this: A dapper member of the state fire marshal’s office in full uniform, who opened the evening by telling us that unattended cooking is the No. 1 cause of house fires. “Stand by your pan,” Jan Parker instructed us. “Or go out to eat.”
What started as one competition to draw diners to restaurants in Blowing Rock has grown to four tilts scattered across the state. You can read more about them here. Besides cooking for professional judges, of which I was one last night, they also serve more than 100 ticket holders. The dishes are blind tasted, and can be anything the chefs choose, from appetizer to dessert. Winners are determined by scores on presentation, aroma, flavor, accompaniments, secret ingredient creativity and execution. The scores are weighted 70 percent on the public’s evaluations and 30 percent on the professional judges’ marks.
The plan is for the winners of the four Fire competitions to vie for an overall title, but not date has been set.
Past ingredients for Fire in the Triangle have included blueberries, noodles and wontons, beef, cantaloupe and turkey. Monday night’s: Fresh corn from John Hudson Farms in Newton Grove.
The interesting thing about these kinds of contests is seeing the creativity that talented chefs can show when focusing on one ingredient. These were professionals, so every dish was going to be good. But my question throughout: Does this dish make corn the star of the show or relegate it to the back of the chorus? For me, the winning dishes brought corn forward to take a bow while still playing well with complimentary flavors in a cohesive dish.
The desserts were good illustrations of what I’m talking about. One was a firm rectangle of cool corn custard that was sweet but had a strong fresh corn flavor. It was topped with a caramel made from Pepsi, graham cracker crumble and peanuts. The caramel, crumble and peanuts danced with the corn, bringing out the flavor. There was no question this dessert was about corn. In contrast, the other dessert was delicious, but it didn’t tell a story of corn as well. It was a sweet, crunchy tuile made from corn which held a whipped corn cream and was garnished with blueberries, peaches and a corn creme anglaise. For all that corn in the dish, I didn’t get a strong corn flavor (I could only taste the sugar in the tuile, no corn at all). I found out later that Childers made the custard and Falcoz-Vigne the other dessert.
The other dishes: Corn and lobster crab cake with smoky corn chowder and corn and bacon beignet with citrus-ginger herb salad from Falcoz-Vigne (my beignet was chewy); roasted quail with charred corn and blueberry relish, sherry vinegar and thyme from Childers (loved the sauce, balanced dish); corn and pulled duck confit with corn succotash, corn butter mashed potatoes, N.C. peaches and corn barbecue sauce from Falcoz-Vigne (duck was dry, sauce was awesome); grilled pork tenderloin with creamed corn, turnip butter, and peach marmalade and white balsamic barbecue sauce from Childers (excellent overall dish that still said “corn.”)
The winner was Childers, who will go on to compete against the winner of The Oxford vs. Flights contest tonight.