Fire in the Triad Quarterfinals: Battle Bacon

I am thrilled to be the Guest Blogger for NikSnacks while Nikki is away. Let me introduce myself; I am Kristi Johnson Marion, of Winston-Salem, and although I do not have Nikki's culinary credentials, I am a fellow blogger at and writer for Forsyth Woman and Forsyth Family Magazines and, as well as a proud locavore, supporting local farmers, farmers markets and local food products.

My first taste of Competition Dining Fire in the Triad was the Tomato-Scuppernong battle between Chefs John Milner of Milner's American Southern and Chef Taylor Brett of Bin 33, in which I felt both chefs displayed creative, delicious culinary prowess, but Chef John Milner brought home the first win for Winston-Salem in the competition. Read more about my experience of that battle here.

I came back for more to taste what previous winners, Chef Jonathan Wheeler, of Southern Lights Bistro, and Chef George C. Neal of 1618 West Seafood Grille, both of Greensboro, bring to the plate to this quarterfinal battle.

Our host: Restaurateur and event creator, Jimmy Crippen has been doing Competition Dining dinners for seven years. This year he expanded Fire on the Rock, based in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, across the state to Wilmington for Fire on the Dock, Fire in the Triangle and now, Fire in the Triad. The mission is to feature the best chefs in the area while highlighting North Carolina products and food. When Jimmy Crippen visited our table, we asked him what the most challenging secret ingredient he had ever presented to his chefs was and his response was,
"Milk! I thought they were going to kill me." and his favorite secret ingredients ever used? "Avocado... and Carolina Blue Crab."

Both contenders won their earlier battles, which should be inspiring to aspiring chefs, as both began as dishwashers and worked their way up to executive chef. Tonight's battle was particularly exciting, as Chef Jonathan Wheeler once worked for Chef George Neal. Things must have been "hot" in the kitchen! As an added bonus, Chef Krissy Fuller of The Bistro, and winner of Fire in the Triad's Battle Poulet Rouge against Chef Chris Russell of B. Christopher's was in attendance tonight to cheer on tonight's contenders.

Tonight's Judges:
Chef Don McMillan of The Stocked Pot cooking school and Simple Elegance Catering.
John Batchelor, restaurant reviewer for the Greensboro News & Record
Kara Thomas, food blogger at with plans to attend culinary school herself.

Tonight's Secret Ingredient Challenge.... BACON!
I hope Nikki appreciates how hard this is for me, having to eat six glorious courses of bacon in her stead! (Where is that sarcasm font when you need it?)

First Course: Braised Pork Belly with Adobe-Turnip Puree, Sweet Soy Reduction, Yellow Tomato and Sweet Apple Salsa, topped with Larden-Ashe County Romano Crisp by Chef Jonathan Wheeler of Southern Lights Bistro, Greensboro

This was an amazing dish, because of all the fat of the pork belly and in spite of it (fat is not my favorite, so I had to peel it away). The turnip puree was flavorful, but didn't overpower the hearty taste of the bacon. The star of this dish, though, was the Ashe County Romano crisp.

Second Course: Braised Pork Shoulder with Jalapeño-Bacon Popper, Julienne Carrots, Roasted Garlic, Bacon -- Caramelized Onion Demi-Glace and Chipotle Oil by Chef George Neal of 1618 West Seafood Grille, Greensboro

It's too bad you can't really see the huge jalapeño popper peeking out from behind the pork. To ease the heat of the pepper, Chef Neal blanched them before stuffing them with cream cheese. Carrots also offset the heat of the pepper, which was the star of this dish, and added the needed "oomph" to the pork shoulder.

Third Course: Pork Tenderloin and Mangalista Roulade; Bacon, Crab and Brie Cheese Mouse stuffed in a Pastry Shell, Sweet Potato Hash drizzled with Maple-Bacon Glaze, Natural Sauce, and Hollandaise.

You've heard of "bacon-wrapped _____" fill in the blank, but in this dish, it was the bacon that was surrounded by pork tenderloin. I enjoyed the tenderloin and my favorite part was the puff pastry -- It's hard to go wrong with brie and puff pastry. The sweet potato hash, however, seemed underdone and was very crunchy. I did get lucky with my particular, serving, though. Here's a photo of my plate (forgive the weak lighting).... Here it is... PROOF that bacon loves me back! The bacon in the center of my pork tenderloin was in the shape of a heart!

Here it is... PROOF that bacon loves me back!  The bacon in the center of my pork tenderloin was in the shape of a heart! <3 td="td">

Fourth Course: Pan-Seared Chili-Glazed Beef Petite Fillet with Bacon Tasso Sushi-Rice Wrapped in Collard Greens; Bacon, Shrimp & Lobster Bisque

The fourth course was my favorite entree. Not because of the fillet; in fact, my fillet was extra-extra rare, but that didn't matter. The bacon tasso sushi, wrapped in collard greens was so wonderful with the shrimp lobster bisque, that the fillet was irrelevant. My entire table loved this dish.

Fifth Course: Crispy Bourbon Bacon Pound Cake Bread Pudding with Blueberry Custard, Crumbled Honeycomb Candy with Basil Syrup

We were all hoping for dessert and we were not disappointed. Chef Jonathan Wheeler dazzled us with his crispy bacon bourbon pound cake. Though the bacon was not crispy, that was soon forgotten by the the surprising combination of alliterated flavors -- bacon, bourbon, blueberry, basil -- and textures -- moist cake, frozen custard, basil syrup and the delightfully crunchy honeycomb candy. All the guests at my my table moaned with delight at this dessert and one exclaimed that it gave her goosebumps!

Sixth Course: A Trio of Cheesecake with Slab Bacon and White Chocolate Mousse, Mangalista Bacon and Pecan Ice Cream, Almond-Dusted Chocolate Covered Bacon, by Chef George Neal

Who hasn't dreamed of chocolate-covered bacon? If you haven't, then you should. It's the perfect marriage of salty, savory and sweet. The bacon pecan ice cream was delicious at first, but left behind a strong aftertaste of bacon grease. The cheesecake was very nice, but the bacon crumble crust did just that, crumbled without anything to bind it together. I gladly tried the chocolate-covered bacon first thing and giddily put it to the side to save it for last.

The Winner: The winner of the evening was Chef George Neal of 1618 West Seafood. Congratulations!

What a close battle between teacher and student. When asked what it was like being in the kitchen competing against his old boss, Wheeler replied with a laugh,
"It was kind of weird going up against my old boss, but this time I didn't have to listen to him."

Battle Bacon was truly a culinary dream come true!

For a breakdown of courses and scoring, please visit Competiton Dining.

All photos, except the "heart Bacon" in bad lighting are courtesy of Competition Dining.

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About the author

Nikki Miller-Ka

Nikki Miller-Ka

Ms. Miller-Ka is a classically trained chef with a BA in English from East Carolina University and a Culinary Arts Associate Degree from Le Cordon Bleu-Miami.

Formerly, she’s worked as a researcher, an editorial assistant, reporter and guest blogger for various publications and outlets in the Southeast. She has also worked as a catering chef, a pastry chef, a butcher, a baker, and a biscuit-maker. Presently, she is a food editor, freelance food writer, and a tour guide for Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours.

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