Cooking and emotions blend as well as peanut butter and jelly. The comfort of eating good food at times seems trumped only by the joy that goes into preparing it, as evidenced at Feb. 20 Fire on the Dock battle at Bluewater Waterfront Grill in Wrightsville Beach.
Blockade Runner’s East restaurant chef Mark Lawson’s win was made all the more sweeter by having his daughter cooking by his side. Seeing the pair together was one of the evening’s most touching moments, and a fine example of the love that diners may not realize goes into professional cooking. One of the reasons I like Fire on the Dock is it gets the back-of-the-house stories on the table for diners to savor.
Family in the kitchen was a single example of the emotion displayed at the Feb. 20 event. Another revolved around one of the secret ingredients that chefs had to use.
Each Fire on the Dock contest involves secret ingredients sourced from North Carolina. The ingredients must show up in the three dishes each chef has to prepare for judging by diners and professionals.
Catfish was one ingredient on Feb. 20. The other was mint supplied by Shelton Herb Farm in Leland. The farm’s owner, Margaret Shelton, is a true friend of Cape Fear-area chefs. Some consider her a second mother. She grows the specialty herbs they request, introduces them to new flavors, consults with them about recipes and has even brought them medicinal herbs to try when they are not feeling well.
To work with Shelton’s herbs is an honor, as far as local chefs are concerned, and Lawson did her proud. His mint marshmallow atop chocolate pate earned the night’s highest score – by a long shot.
Loss is always difficult at Fire on the Dock or any professional cooking contest. The stress and hard work involved with putting oneself on the line — in full public view — is a risk in many ways. For Lawson’s opponent, chef Joanie Babcock, however, defeat hardly seemed to matter in light of what happened when she entered the dining room after cooking all day.
Before winners are announced at each Fire on the Dock, competing chefs walk the room, shaking hands and getting accolades for their efforts.
Babcock’s restaurant, Southern Exposure, is in Faison, meaning she and her crew had to spend more than an hour on the road to get to the showdown. With Lawson’s kitchen just minutes away from the competition kitchen, one might expect the dining room that night to be packed with fans of Blockade Runner rather than Southern Exposure. But when Babcock emerged from the kitchen, many, many people stood to cheer and give her a standing ovation. That they traveled so far to support her was a true expression of the love Babcock’s customers feel for her and her restaurant.
“My peeps are out there!” a misty eyed Babcock said.
Fire on the Dock continues tonight when chef Clarke Merrell of Circa 81 in Morehead City meets chef Shane Tyner of Wrightsville Beach’s King Neptune, New Hanover County’s oldest continually operating restaurant. Battles begin at 6:30 p.m. and tickets cost $59 per person.