Chef Dion Sprenkle is a maelstrom: volatile and messy, bouncing through his kitchen and moving his arms like twin tornadoes. Before taking the stage after the final plates had been served, he had to change into a fresh chef’s coat because the one he had been working in looked like someone had used it to wipe up all the cutting boards on the line.
This semifinal round of Competition Dining, held this year in Winston-Salem’s Benton Convention Center, pitted Sprenkle — the madman from New York whose eponymous Lexington restaurant operates without the benefit of liquor, wine and beer sales — and Undercurrent’s Chef Michael Harkenreader, a former Comp Dining champion whose calm demeanor hides a quiet storm of culinary creativity.
Sprenkle came to my attention back in 2013 when he was even more unknown than he is now. I met him at his Lexington restaurant where he explained why he chose this little town, where he still has spaghetti and meatballs on the menu alongside the four-course tasting menu and escargot and where he can’t sell alcohol, rather than one of the thriving downtown districts in the Triad.
Short version: Screw those guys. Picture Joe Pesci saying it and you get the idea.
Harkenreader is a different sort of beast. I’m in his dining room at Undercurrent every week to drop off papers amid muted conversations and the gentle clink of silver on china.
His dishes, too, have a similar elegance: His chestnut-flour torteloni filled with seasoned skirt-steak and topped with arugula pesto may have been one of the finest things I’ve ever tasted at a Comp Dining event.
But Sprenkle, scrappy as they come, had already scored big with his veal dish, with tenderloin and smoked cheek, a chestnut flour-potato croquette and a powerful trio of mushrooms. His quail, atop a chestnut-flour pancake, also scored well with judges. The chestnut flour, one of two surprise ingredients that had to be incorporated into every dish, was challenging both in texture and flavor profile.
Harkenreader finished with a dessert that I’d pay $12 for: a chocolate tart with a crust of chestnut flour; a crisp with the flour, sea salt and cloister honey; and a scoop of crazy-good ice cream with chestnut flour, white chocolate and molasses.
Picture Joe Pesci saying it and you get the idea.
But the veal won the best scores of the night, pulling Sprenkle into a spotlight — and the finals of Competition Dining on July 7 — that’s been a long time coming.
I approached him after his victory, and though I hadn’t seen him in years he recognized me immediately.
“This guy!” he exclaimed, extending his hand and patting me on the back. “The veal! Amirite?”