Fire in the Triad Quarterfinals: Battle Red White and Blue

Last night Chef Michael Harkenreader of Undercurrent in Greensboro met up with Chef Leigh Hesling of Green Valley Grill at the Painted Plate in Greensboro for the THIRD quarterfinal battle of Fire in the Triad.

Outdoor temperatures have dropped considerably since the competition began in mid-August but the heat surrounding each competitor has intensified exponentially. Both chefs said that this time around things were a little easier in the kitchen and they were familiar with how things worked.

Guest judges were:
Brian Clarey, editor of Yes! Weekly magazine
Carla Kucinski, editor of Go Triad
ME--Nikki Miller-Ka of Nik Snacks!
I didn't know I was going to be a judge until I sat down at my table. I love surprises! I've only been a voting diner twice during the competition, so it was a double treat last night (Quadruple treat if I count dessert).

Fellow chefs and competitors Jay Pierce of Lucky 32 and George Neal of 1618 West were also in attendance. This competition has given competing chefs a chance to support one another, get out of the kitchen, socialize and see each other as well. I'd be sad if I didn't get to hang out with my chef friends every now and again.

After a moving 9/11 video tribute featuring a rendition of the "Star-Spangled Banner" by the Charlie Daniels Band (complete with a few diners showing respect by standing and saluting with hands over their hearts), Chefs Hesling and Harkenreader briefly came out to do a lap around the dining room and see all of our hungry faces.

THEN--the secret ingredient was revealed!

The secret ingredient(s): RED apples, WHITE milk and BLUE cheese! How patriotic! All three had to be used somewhere in, around, on, about the three courses from each chef.

With so many ingredients to lookout for, it was a challenge for me to eat. And tweet. And take photos. Each of my photos looked like they were in a European nightclub--dimly lit, tanned, and decorated with impeccable makeup.

Course 1: Honey mustard-glazed shrimp, black quinoa salad, apple slaw, buttermilk blue cheese ranch dressing
This first course was fresh, light and crunchy. All of it. Everything from the shrimp to the quinoa crunched.  The shrimp were not glazed or very honey mustard-y. The apple slaw was accented with slices of radish that looked just like slices of apple and under the dim light of the dining room, I thought they were--at first. The blue cheese ranch dressing was delicious. As far as usage of the secret ingredients, the apple slaw was somewhat creative, I thought. And I wished there were chunks of blue cheese in the dressing, but the flavor alone was enough.

Course 2: Nueske's applewood-smoked bacon rillete wrapped in sweet potato strings with gala apple, Lusty Monk mustard, rosemary compote and green apple chive oil

Whenever bacon is presented, people get crazy. I mean, REALLY crazy. It makes them want to praise their deity of choice, speak in tongues, and incite riots. People take on alien life forms, it seems.

You can't tell me that bacon doesn't make you want to get up and dance like this!

In the case of Course Number Two, it was no different. Classic rillettes is like paté and is spread on bread (or whatever you want to spread it on). This showing of rillettes was more like pulled pork wrapped with sweet potato strings. Sitting on dressed red leaf lettuce greens was the rillettes parcel. Inside the parcel were bits of mustard-scented apples, surrounded by the rosemary compote and green apple chive oil.

Course 3: Skillet-seared pheasant, sweet potato pavé, blue cheese-pecan grilled apple compote with red wine glace

Sitting astride the block of sweet potato and yukon gold pavé (a nod to famous restaurant Ad Hoc), the pheasant breast was cooked well (a little too well) and covered with its skin, in an attempt to keep it juicy. I'm allergic to pecans, so I picked through my compote to get a singular piece of apple and blue cheese in order to judge. The glace was expertly prepared (seeing as how there are experts in the kitchen making all of this amazing food)

Course 4: Pink peppercorn crusted lamb loin with smoked apple butter and sherry glaze, blue cheese crumbles over house-made spaetzle with caramelized onion and fresh herbs, minted sweet pea puree

The second highest scoring dish of the night (and my favorite), to quote a fellow diner, "That lamb was bangin". It banged on my tastebuds, wanting to get in. This lamb was perfect. The pink peppercorns were very prominent, strong and evoked emotions in lots in the room. The smoked apple butter sat atop the perfect lamb. The blue cheese crumbles: Ermahgerd. My spaetzle was mushy and not cooked well. I appreciated the attempt, but I didn't care for this part of the dish. I don't think there were any caramelized onions or fresh herbs on my plate. I didn't see or taste them at all. The minted pea puree made its way into my pieces of lamb and I loved every single bite.

Course 5: Candied bacon-apple sticky bun, buttermilk semifreddo and bacon caramel

I need a moment of silence in reverence for this sticky bun.

It looked a little iffy on my plate.

Let me show you , what I saw. Photo courtesy: Nik Snacks
Flat, uninspiring, raw apple slices with a bit of thyme sprinkled on. Melted ice cream. "Humph," I thought to myself. And then I tasted it.

Words fail me for how fantastic this course was. Let me show you some photos to share my sentiments last evening.

Course 6: Petite Croquembouche filled with apple-maple mousse, salted caramel and buttermilk creme Anglaise
Photo courtesy: Nik Snacks

Pretty, isn't it! I oohed and ahhed over my plate before eating most of it with my hands. Hey, cream puffs are a hands-on experience. I felt Parisian for all of 2 minutes.
The mousse was a little gloppy, too maple-y and the apple was difficult to detect. The salted caramel was excellent, but not as good as the bacon caramel of the last course. The creme anglaise was executed perfectly, but the profiteroles were just run-of-the-mill. This course didn't have a chance against the last.

At this point, it was time to lock in our votes. I went back over each course in my head (and through my photos in my camera) to remember what I'd eaten and it was time to commit!

I am willing to share my scores with you. I'm not sure if any other judge on any other night would be willing to do so. I'm perfectly comfortable with how I scored each dish. Even though I may have enjoyed the taste, we are always instructed to vote with our palates and according to the rubric system put in place, my scores reflect my opinion. 

The diners' scores reflected a mere 0.678% difference in scores between the chefs. There was only a 1.03% difference in final weighted scores between each chef. That goes to show how incredible the caliber of food presented to us last evening. In the end, Chef Michael Harkenreader of Undercurrent came out on top! Congratulations, Chef! We'll see you September 19 during the Fire in the Triad Semifinals!

For a breakdown of courses and scores, please visit Competition Dining.

Stay tuned tomorrow to see who Chef Michael will be up against:

Will it be John Milner of Milner's?

Will it be Kristina Fuller of The Bistro?

All photos courtesy of Competition Dining, unless noted.

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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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