Wilmington restaurant Marc’s on Market didn’t win Fire on the Dock Tuesday night. That honor went to Morehead City’s Chefs 105. But as has often been the case during the cooking tournament, my highest-score of the night went to the chef who walked home without the trophy.
Fire on the Dock contenders are judged by diners (70 percent of the score) and professional judges (30 percent of the score). I’m among professional judges who include chefs, restaurant reviewers, food writers, food service professionals and others in the food business.
I’ve judged nearly every Fire on the Dock battle and have witnessed lots of surprises along the way.
The chefs I thought were shoo-ins didn’t make the cut. Competing in a cooking contest is tough, even for accomplished chefs like Marc’s on Market’s Marc Copenhaver, who has been named Wilmington Top Chef twice during the Taste of Wilmington Food and Wine Festival and has won the Best Dish in North Carolina contest.
To compete, chefs must step outside their comfort-zone kitchens. They have a limited time to cook, a limited number of staff, don’t know the diners and, in the case of Fire on the Dock, have no control over the ingredients or equipment they may use.
Those circumstances have led to dishes as surprising as each night’s outcome. When deadlines loom, chefs get even more creative. Sometimes those ideas don’t work; other times, they stun both diners and professional judges.
The dish that grabbed pro judges Tuesday night was Copenhaver’s bacon-braised quail ravioli carbonara with a poached quail egg atop an arugula salad dressed with white truffle oil. I liked the balance of pasta in a rich cream sauce against a few bites of a refreshing salad, the little quail egg poached just right.
Copenhaver likes truffle oil. During last fall’s Food for Thought local-food festival at New Hanover County Library at Landfall Center, his risotto with truffle oil perfumed the auditorium. During Fire on the Dock, he’s used truffle oil in polenta, too. At Marc’s on Market, Copenhaver makes a truffle aioli he serves with crab cakes.
Truffle oil on a salad may seem odd, but it’s one of the best ways, I think, to use that little bottle of expensive truffle oil lots of foodies get for Christmas. I first had a salad dressed with truffle oil at downtown Wilmington’s Aubriana’s, where chef Alex Succop paired a truffle oil-dressed baby greens salad with a crab cake for one of my Culinary Adventures with Liz Biro food tours.
No vinegar is necessary when using truffle oil on a salad. Simply toss the best, most tender greens with a little truffle oil, freshly cracked black pepper and good-quality salt, something with a bit of crunch like Maldon sea salt. Don’t use too much truffle oil; the flavor can overwhelm quickly. Toss greens with a few drops, taste and then add a few more drops and taste again. Serve a small salad, just a few forkfuls.
Fire on the Dock is part of the statewide Competition Dining Series, a bracket-style tournament featuring regional contests that culminate in a final four battle to pick an overall N.C. winner. A secret ingredient, from North Carolina, must be used in each of the three courses chefs prepare during each contest.
The competition started earlier this year with Fire on the Rock in Blowing Rock.
Fire on the Dock continues tonight when Cameo 19 Hundred chef Kirsten Mitchell of Wilmington meets Persimmons chef Gerry Fong of New Bern. The final battle between the winner of this contest and Chefs 105′s Andy Hopper happens May 22 at Shell Island Resort in Wrightsville Beach.