Thirteen Wilmington-area chefs entered the Fire on the Dock cooking contest, but it was a cook from New Bern who took the crown in the final match Wednesday night.
Gerry Fong of Persimmons beat Clarke Merrell of Morehead City’s Circa 81 in the championship Fire on the Dock bout, Battle Bacon and Country Ham, at Bluewater Grill.
Fire on the Dock is part of Competition Dining Series‘ a statewide, bracket-style cooking tournament. Fong, the 2012 Fire on the Dock runner-up, will meet four other 2013 regional winners during the November Final Fire round in Raleigh.
Meantime, Fong will be a guest chef in the Circa 81 kitchen during the April 24-28 Beaufort Wine & Food Weekend.
As competitive as chefs are during Fire on the Dock, they come out friends and along the way make plans like the upcoming Fong-Merrell collaborative. Fire on the Dock 2012 winner Andy Hopper, then at Chefs 105 in Morehead City, faced chef Ryan Payne of Chapel Hill’s Weathervane, part of the gourmet emporium A Southern Season, in the 2012 statewide final four. Afterward, Hopper sold Chefs 105 went to work for A Southern Season. Hopper said he will be the market’s executive chef at a new location in Charleston, S.C.
Hearing about chef partnerships, new directions and menu ideas are among my favorite parts of the Competition Dining Series.
Here are some of my other favorites from the 2013 Fire on the Dock:
Chef Rebeca Alvarado Parades' Texas Pete chocolate cheesecake (photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series).
Best Dish: Pastry chef Rebeca Alvarado Parades’ super silky, intensely chocolate Texas Pete and cocoa cheesecake with Texas Pete gastrique, Texas Pete chocolate glaze, whipped mascarpone cream and a spicy almond lace cookie. Many diners mentioned the Battle Texas Pete dessert to me during the course of the series. Some were still talking about it at the final battle last night. Parades was on the Yo Sake team. She is the pastry chef at downtown Wilmington’s Manna.
Dish I most want to eat again: The Oceanic chef Thomas Mobley at Battle N.C. Dairy prepared my personal favorite dish of the competition: porcini-crusted rare filet sliced oh so thinly and topped with mixed salad greens in truffle-buttermilk dressing. Balsamic onions and fried capers garnished the dish. The filet was more like carpaccio, the salad its vero amore. Simple, well-edited. Bravo Chef! I hope to sample it again one day on Oceanic’s stunning new pier.
Best idea: During Battle N.C. Wine, Shane Tyner, who represented King Neptune in Wrightsville Beach and has since moved on to Towne Tap & Grill, served a dessert consisting of a striking black sticky rice mound atop blueberry port sauce and a lovely coconut crème anglaise. Crisp, slightly tart Asian pear chutney made with muscadine wine crowned the dish. Despite the rice being a bit too dry, chefs at the battle, including Hopper, agreed it was the night’s most impressive effort.
The Oceanic's porcini-crusted filet with mixed greens, truffle-buttermilk dressing, balsamic onions and fried capers.
Chef most on my radar as a result of Fire on the Dock: When chef Josh Petty of The Pub at Sweet and Savory served a deep-fried wonton filled with a soft egg yolk during Battle Eggs, I was hooked. Petty served the wonton over egg drop soup containing tender veal cheek, butter-poached lobster, black rice, mushrooms and asparagus. I loved the way the soft yolk inside the wonton enriched the soup when my spoon broke the crisp package. I’m looking forward to trying Petty’s new menu at The Pub at Sweet and Savory.
Simplicity rules: Battle Pintade (guinea hen) was among matches that produced surprising desserts and over-the-top combinations like Cape Fear Country Club chef Antoine Murray’s pintade tuille and pintade creme anglaise, but Dockside chef Scott Grimm earned the top-scoring dish of the night with simple braised guinea hen served with grits and a side of collard greens that he stewed in beer.
Best bits: Lots of times, little things provide WOW! moments at Fire on the Dock. Elements of dishes may stand out more than the overall preparations. Fong’s tempura fresh ginger slices last night was one example. Petty’s egg yolk wonton was another. My favorite was South Beach Grill chef James Rivenbark’s bacon caramel served during Battle Carrots, Strawberries and Sweet Potatoes.
Best service: Bluewater Waterfront Grill’s wait staff impressed week after week with politeness, attentiveness, food delivered evenly and at proper temperatures and silverware cleared and replaced as needed.
Favorite moment: Chefs work hard. They may get a great review from a critic, a thank you note may arrive from a diner, TripAdvisor may be full of accolades. Mostly, cooks work long hours, some up to 70 or 80 hours a week, separated from their admirers. Kitchens are hot, dangerous, stressful places, quite different from easy dining rooms. Still, chefs thrive, constantly creating, discussing their craft, imagining what they can do next or what they can pull from the past — all to please people. Most don’t understand the celebrity chef trend. They just want to cook good food that makes diners smile.
And so my absolute favorite moment of Fire on the Dock 2012 was at the end of Battle Catfish and Mint when chef Joanie Babcock emerged from the kitchen.
Babcock’s restaurant, Southern Exposure, is in Faison, meaning she and her crew — and Southern Exposure customers — had to spend more than an hour on the road to get to the showdown. Despite the drive, Babcock fans filled most of the dining room. When Babcock came out to hear the night’s scores, all those many fans cheered and gave her a standing ovation. That they traveled so far to support her was a true expression of love.