Competition Dining: Final Fire Battle of Champions

Welcome to the second of two blog posts devoted to the Final Fire Battle of Champions. Last night was the culmination of SIXTY-FOUR chefs and their carefully selected teams of three that battled it out over the course of 2012 to determine the best of the best in the state of North Carolina. For results of all three Final Fire Battle of Champions dinners, click here.

ONE HUNDRED NINETY TWO, almost 200 of the best chefs from the best restaurants in all of the state, put their creativity, experience and reputations on the line for the goodness that is Competition Dining.

Chef Michael Foreman of Bistro Roca in Blowing Rock, the most seasoned Fire competitor (He was a semifinalist in 2011) battled it out with the alliterative Chef Ryan Payne of Weathervane in Chapel Hill.

Judges for the evening: Kat Kinsman, Managing Editor for CNN's food blog, Eatocracy; Daniel Benjamin, pastry chef at Herons at the Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary; Dathan Kazsuk, blogger and design editor for Triangle Business Journal; Evan Nash of Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte; Chef Scott Craig, Executive Chef of Myers Park Country Club in Charlotte and fellow food blogger. And again, 70% of these folks' scores accounted for the total of the night's dishes.
The night's secret ingredient(s): Hog jowls and cushions AND Pepsi.

What's a jowl? What's a cushion? What the--

Well, a hog jowl is merely the cheek of the pig. It's smoked, cured and looks like streaky bacon.

A pork cushion is not slang for pork butt. It's the picnic or the shoulder part of the pig.

Now that you know the nitty, let's get down to the gritty.

First course: Pepsi-Braised Jowl Bacon with Black Pepper Biscuit, Pepsi-Black Currant Red Eye Gravy, Candied Jowl Jelly & Potato Egg presented by Chef Foreman.

It doesn't get more Southern than this, folks. Biscuits, gravy AND cured pork, all presented in a fine dining environ. Bacon and eggs--Chef Foreman gets extra from me for creativity, but minus for the plating. Some plates at my table were missing biscuits, parts of the potato egg and one unfortunate soul didn't have any red-eye gravy. Other than the missing items, the only mystery of this dish was the jowl jelly. I can only assume it was a glace de viande (reduced meat juices boiled to a thick "jelly") but under the dim light of the dining room, it looked unappetizing and out of place on the otherwise colorful plate. The potato "egg" consisted of a smooth, whipped and creamy potato crowned with a very sweet, sweet potato quenelle. The perfectly cooked hog jowl bacon swam laps in the Pepsi red-eye gravy and you know I made my black pepper biscuit run laps around my plate to pick up all of the leftover bits of sauce.

Second course: Sweet Potato Ravioli with Confit Pork Jowl, Pepsi-Brown Sage Butter & Balsamic Pepsi Reduction presented by Chef Payne

Most everyone at my table thought this ravioli was undercooked, but in actuality--it was perfect. I've never eaten a more perfectly cooked piece of pasta. The ravioli sat atop of schmear of the sweet potato filling giving us a double dose of what was inside. I love sage brown butter but I think it was marred by the addition of Pepsi and the balsamic reduction. Too sweet. The flavor of sage was not pronounced, but when I munched on my crispy sage leaf, I got the earthy, savory, slightly bitter sensation I've come to know and love. I did not love, however, the pork jowl. Shredded and a bit mealy, I was glad the butter and balsamic were there to brighten it up and make it edible.

Third course: House-Made Jowl Pancetta Risotto with Taos-Style Braised Pork Cushion, Dos Equis Beer-Pepsi Jus & Pine Nut-Cumin Pistou presented by Chef Foreman

Before this dish hit the table, the aroma was wafting. It arrived hot and beautifully composed. The risotto was hidden beneath this mound of sweet, spicy pork and accented with this warm, flavorful pistou of garlic, basil and warm, toasty cumin. I wanted to put my face in this plate. I wanted to pick up the risotto in my car and take it on a date of dinner and dancing. I-I-I... well...

Fourth course: Korean BBQ Style Pepsi Braised Pork Cushion with Pork Fat Seared Grit Cake, Collards, Crispy Pork Jowl & Confit Tomatoes presented by Chef Payne
The star of this dish: the pork fat seared grit cake. It was the hottest dish component of the night. Literally. I had to let it cool down before I could chow down. It was was soft. It was crispy. It was creamy. It melted in my mouth and whispered sweet nothings in my ear. It cradled a little parcel of collard greens that tasted like my grandma's. For real. My mind flashed to the Progresso soup commercial where the lady calls the kitchen to ask to speak to her grandma. My grandma was in the kitchen of the Renaissance hotel last night. I'm sure of it.

At this point of the night, two things were happening: A) I was tired and wanted to slide down underneath the table for a disco nap B) Chef Foreman was ahead in points. It's been said before and I'll say it again: Desserts make this competition. It's always "Do or Die" at this juncture.

Fifth course: Pepsi-Bittersweet Chocolate Torte with Pepsi-Ginger Poached Asian Pear, Jowl Scented Five-Spice Mousse & Pistachio Pork Cracklin’ Nougat presented by Chef Foreman

Remember that movie "The Fifth Element"? Bruce Willis? Milla Jovovich? I didn't understand the movie, but I knew I liked it. I feel the same way about this fifth course. Everything worked, but I didn't understand how. The cake was exactly how described: dark and bittersweet. The pears, sweet and gingery. The mousse was porky and perfect. The cracklin' nougat was a marvel to me: smooth, creamy, solid, crunchy. I hate erroneous leaves of mint, but I ate this garnish with joy and refreshment.

Sixth course: Pork Fat Funnel Cake with Buttermilk Cake, Pepsi-Apple Ice Cream, Candied Pork Jowl & Cherry Pepsi Syrup presented by Chef Payne

The dining room was noisy before the last course swirled out of the kitchen, but it REALLY got lively when people started to eat their crunchy pork fat funnel cakes dipped in the Pepsi-apple ice cream. The buttermilk cake soaked up the Cherry Pepsi syrup and munching on the candied jowl was like having pancakes and bacon for dinner. A whimsical, creative end to a meal to end all meals. This dessert put Chef Payne over the top and solidified his reign over this competition.

I don't mind sharing my voting scores with you. The fine, talented folks at h.IT Solutions created the platform for us to be able to vote via smartphone, tablet and PDA. I may have liked a dish, but my votes definitely reflect scoring in regards to the expectations and parameters of the rubric system. You're always free to go back and change your scores throughout the night, but I wouldn't have changed a thing.

Playing the waiting game

Congratulations to Chef Payne for winning the 2012 Competition Dining Series Battle of Champions. Everyone wants to come to the Weathervane now! Congratulations to Chef Foreman for making some of the best food I've had in a while. It was an honor and a pleasure to have the opportunity to eat your food. I can't wait to visit The Rock and dine at Bistro Roca.

Competition Dining Fire battles begin again in January... stay tuned and get your forks ready, folks!

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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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