by Eric Ginsburg
Never before had so much silverware been set before me.
They looked like legions of forks and knives assembled to do battle atop a black tablecloth, or maybe taking up defensive positions around a red napkin folded like something you’d see made from a towel at the foot of a bed on a cruise line. To the left, four forks. To the right, four shining knives. And up top, two forks stabbing right below three spoons pushing left.
I didn’t use it all over the subsequent six-course meal, but it served as a symbol of what set the dinner apart from any like it. This was no ordinary meal, even of the multi-course variety at a high-end restaurant; the silverware signaled staging in a friendly, albeit serious, food war.
The Competition Dining Series, which used to be known as Fire in the Triad, is reaching its pinnacle this year in Winston-Salem, where each night of the series two respected chefs compete in an unfamiliar kitchen and with several uncontrollable variables. Each bout includes surprise ingredients — on Monday that included sirloin flap and three varieties of cucumbers — but the real wildcard proved to be the audience.
And not just that we, the attendees, would be ranking each of a chef’s three dishes based on presentation, aroma, overall flavor, flavor and use of the secret ingredient, execution, creativity and accompaniments. Monday included an additional hurdle for the chefs from Giannos in High Point and River Birch Lodge in Winston-Salem, who had already knocked off the formidable Meridian and Greensboro Country Club respectively — an audience size that had ballooned to 160.
Chef Travis Myers, of River Birch Lodge, scored highest with his second course, a three-hour braised sirloin flap with a Chinese five-spice rub, crimini mushroom red Himalayan rice pilaf, julienned ginger lemongrass pickling cucumber and house-made wasabi and cucumber aioli. But I didn’t see it — I thought the course was the weakest of his three.
It sounded great, maybe better than the rest, but the tough flap cut tasted too soft, the pilaf too overpowering and the delicious julienned cucumber snuck in almost as an afterthought. Like his dessert, which included a small chocolate cheesecake with salted caramel, candied pecans, brulee tuille, dark chocolate ganache, sugar cookie soil and a ball of cucumber gelato, the dish tried to do too much.
I don’t understand how his first dish scored lowest of the evening — it was among my favorite. Myers combined the beef flap with pork cheek to create boudin, a sausage, fanned in pieces. The course included one of the more creative uses of the cucumber, incorporating it into a tzatziki sauce atop the boudin and matched with thin cucumber slices and pickling juice gastrique.
Unlike his competitor, Myers’ first course combined the surprise ingredients rather than presenting them separately, almost like a sample plate lacking cohesion. The boudin, tzatzki and cucumbers was a bolder, more creative decision and, better yet, it tasted great.
Everyone in the room that evening was an empowered judge, voting using a customized phone app, but a few of us tapped to be pro judges were weighted separately and then averaged with the throng at the back of Winston-Salem’s Benton Convention Center. All told, the pros ended up scoring the chefs exactly evenly overall, leaving it to the general audience to break the tie. But before we did that, we gave Giannos chef David Nicoletta the highest marks of the evening for his dessert.
Nicoletta, a newcomer to the competition, said afterwards that even though Monday was his second round, “It didn’t get any easier this time.” In describing his approach, he said he tried to let the ingredients speak for themselves, and his ability to do that is exactly why I favored his courses overall.
Nicoletta’s dessert was more simple and avoided chocolate — the obvious crowd-pleaser. That’s a few points from me for creativity right there, especially in a showdown that is frequently decided on a chef’s last course. The Giannos giant served a round tres leches cake that tasted of gingerbread topped with cucumber anglaise, cucumber-mint-cloister honey semi freddo and cucumber-honey glass.
It was the best use of a secret ingredient, not hidden under anything or separated, and the cool cucumber complemented the custard-like ball atop the mini cake.
We didn’t know as we tried each course who prepared it — the reveal wouldn’t come until the end. The unveiling seemed to surprise the Southern Foods reps I dined with, who were pulling for their man Myers. I didn’t expect it either, especially after learning that last year’s winner, Tim Thompson who used to be at Marisol, was in there with Myers, a sort of secret weapon.
But in the end, almost 160 people gave Nicoletta about a 2.5-point lead, pushing him over the deadlocked pro judges. Myers and his team deserved more credit than they were given, especially on their first course, but Nicoletta deserved the victory.
On June 30, he will face the winner of a matchup between Graze in Winston-Salem — a finalist last year — and Perky’s Bistro in Jamestown. If Nicoletta can hold on through the battle, he’ll face the revered Chef Dion Sprinkle or Greensboro’s Undercurrent in the final on July 7. He already played his part in knocking off two of the six Winston-Salem competitors, all of which are now out, and has the chance to bring the title to High Point.