You meet the best people at food events. And specifically at Competition Dining.
At last year’s chef cook-off challenge I met Pablo del Valle, the energetic and hilarious owner of Atelier on Trade in downtown Winston-Salem. I’ve since been accused by a reader of having a friend crush on del Valle, but I think most everyone who meets him feels the same way.
And this year, at the championship bout of Competition Dining’s Winston-Salem round, I found myself sitting with the Thursday Night Beer Club, or TNBC as they call it — three couples who welcomed me as the lone outsider at their table and who have the joie de vivre that I hope to emit when I reach their station in life.
Now it helps that I’m a food writer attending a food event to be sure — why wouldn’t you want me sitting at your table as we critique six courses of inspired cooking? But I attend all kinds of culinary events, and this one is the only one where I genuinely walked away with a new friend. Finding such people outside of work or school is no small feat, and while Competition Dining is a thrilling (yet long) dining experience, it’s just as much if not more about who you experience it with.
Host Jimmy Crippen is the sort of guy you could imagine hosting a traveling circus, though he offhandedly remarked last week that he’s getting too old to run across the floor at the Benton Convention Center while emceeing. His exuberance, the playful nature of the event — at least on the consumers’ side — and the gluttony all aid the carefree and communal vibe.
That’s the only way you can find yourself eating smoked pheasant confit (above) for the first of six courses without dealing with the pretentiousness, stuffiness or white tablecloths that come as mandatory accessories elsewhere. There’s no tinkling classical music or tables for two by the fireplace, just a high-ceiling, well-lit room with large circular tables seating seven. At the end of the evening, chefs from two competing institutions parade through the room almost like boxers before a match as ridiculous oldies boom and Crippen jumps on stage — yeah, there’s a stage — and conducts what feel like post-basketball game interviews with the chef squads.
It’s a little ridiculous. And it’s a lot of fun.
For the finale in the Camel City — just the third round here before the competition moves over to Greensboro, a departure from previous years — three chefs from Boone’s Vidalia restaurant dueled with the hometown heroes at Graze last week.
The Graze team, featuring chef Richard Miller, arrived as defending champions, having taken the title in last year’s Triad-wide tournament. If anyone showed up wanting to root for the home team, they couldn’t have done any better than Graze, which is located inside the Winston-Salem Marriott within crawling distance to the convention center.
Competition Dining — formerly known as Fire in the Triad and similar names elsewhere in the state — gives chefs two surprise ingredients. Over the span of three blind courses per team, attendees rate each dish on a variety of metrics. After several hours, a winner is crowned using the cumulative scores of the audience and with the weighted vote of pro judges, including several other chefs.
It didn’t take long for Graze to establish itself as my easy favorite for the night, though I didn’t know which team’s creations I’d fallen for.
Everyone at my table and two other food writers in attendance agreed that the night’s second course rocked the evening. Using the evening’s surprise ingredients — molasses and pheasant — Miller and company presented a pheasant confit atop sausage and pheasant liver cheddar grits and accompanied by red pepper cucumber relish, an incredible sorghum juniper berry gravy and cornbread. My tablemates and I wondered if the addition of charred sorghum Vidalia onion pearls had been an intentional signal from the Vidalia chefs to their supporters in the audience, a giveaway as to who prepared the secret dish.
The Vidalia crew bombed with its second course, a pheasant take on chicken and waffles that felt like a spin on the dish by someone who’d only ever heard tell of the original. The meat arrived so deeply fried that you couldn’t taste the pheasant, the waffle appeared like a miniature, flavorless Eggo. I scored it the lowest of the evening.
Meanwhile, Graze put forward a lacquered pheasant breast that tasted delicious but came with too many accompaniments, like a welcomed friend at a party who unexpectedly arrives with a pleasant yet overwhelming entourage. Overall, we agreed that we liked the dish — which included a sweet potato and coconut puree, a totally unnecessary pheasant cracklin’ and kimchee, among other things — and certainly rated it higher than its competitor.
But then came dessert.
There’s no other way to say it; Graze blew it. On the whole, I preferred their final course to Vidalia’s overpowered sorghum chocolate cake with nectarine ice cream save for one vital aspect — the sorghum chocolate fudge cake Graze presented showed up rock hard. We stabbed at the small block, which we imagined being made ahead of time and emerging too late from the freezer, with mild success.
Normally the dessert is a chance for teams to make up for earlier transgressions and errors. The Vidalia folks absolutely crushed with their dessert in the preceding round, delivering a blueberry lemon crumb cake with ricotta cheesecake ice cream and smoked syrup glazed ham. Attendees ranked it considerably higher than any other dish of the entire Winston-Salem tourney.
When it came to the dessert in the final, Vidalia pulled in the highest marks of the night, just a hair above Graze’s lacquered pheasant breast. But Graze’s dessert, with the central component to it a failure, sank like concrete.
Only one dish during the three-round Competition Dining ranked worse — a dessert from the Phoenix in Brevard in Round 1 — but that’s only according to the pro judges. Overall, the rock-hard cake from Graze netted the lowest averaged score from attendees. On a 40-point scale, Vidalia’s dessert notched 29.7 points; Graze’s otherwise superior creation scored a mere 18.8.
And that’s how, after the Rocky-esque parade of chefs into the dining area, after Crippen’s attempts with recalcitrant chef interviewees and after the votes were tallied that Vidalia walked away with the title, carrying a 27.1 to 25-point victory over the defending champs.
One of the Vidalia chefs flexed and roared much like MVP Steph Curry would do a few days later after pulling off a comeback victory to go on to the NBA Finals. Attendees, myself included, mostly shrugged.
It’s not that we didn’t care who won. It’s just that we enjoyed ourselves so thoroughly and stuffed our faces so excessively that the winner seemed almost like an afterthought.