Seven to Taste: Local-food favorites bring their talents to Competition Dining

By Alison Leininger

April 5, 2015

Twenty-four local chefs are battling it out in this year’s Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series, and you’re invited along for the ride. While the series began on March 22, there are still plenty of matchups including second and final-round pairings that will push each team to higher levels.

Each event comes in the form of a six-course dinner open to the general public (prices vary, starting at $55 for first-round matches). Diners use an app on their phones to rate each course on appearance, flavor and creativity, without knowing which of the two chefs’ teams prepared each dish. The challenge for the competitors is a mystery ingredient they won’t meet until the day of the competition. Whether carrots or Cheerwine, all starring ingredients are “grown, raised, caught or made in North Carolina.” The whole effort is part of the Got to Be NC branding campaign from the state’s Department of Agriculture.

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NC Dining Competition

Like any big bracket (and Charlotte’s got two this year!), this ongoing culinary competition might intimidate prospective participants. With so many teams to cheer for, how are we to choose which one to get behind? We’ve compiled a list of some of the local food favorites here in Charlotte to give you a bit of insight on the well-known chefs to keep an eye on. You may not know which dish is whose, but you’ll certainly have something delicious to chew on regardless.

Chef Paul Verica. Photo by Carter Short
Chef Paul Verica. Photo by Carter Short

Paul Verica, Heritage Food and Drink: Recently profiled on the CLTure food blog, Verica obviously has a big spot in our hearts (and bellies). His creative and flavorful approach to seasonal food served him well in the first round where he came through a winner. He’s now set to battle it out with Steven Goff of Asheville’s King James Public House on April 13. Both are strong supporters of their areas’ local products, so you can expect some inventive twists on whatever they receive as their mystery ingredient.

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Chef Clark Barlowe. Photo by Carter Short

Clark Barlowe, Heirloom Restaurant: Barlowe has become the premier spokesman for ultra-local and sustainable foods, making a specialty of incorporating foraged ingredients into his menu. With a first year of restaurant ownership under his belt, he’s sure to come out with confidence at the April 20 dinner against Vivace. Regardless of the secret ingredient he’s presented with, Barlowe says “I work with these local ingredients every day, and change my menu just as often.” Coming up with some inspired new dishes on the fly should be no problem for this local favorite.

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Chef Chris Coleman. Photo by Rob Shoemaker

Chris Coleman, The Asbury: Born and raised in the Charlotte area, Coleman may be the closest thing we have to a hometown hero in this game. Last year he brought acclaim to this historic uptown landmark with his updated twist on classic southern ingredients. He’s also brought together a strong team in his kitchen, and if all three show up on April 19 it’s bound to be a good show. Whether serving up his Mawmaw’s biscuits, or combining peas and carrots in totally unexpected ways (hint: check out our review coming soon), whatever finds its way to your mouth will be sure to make it happy.

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Chef Ben Philpott. Photo by Carter Short

Ben Philpott, Block & Grinder While offering some non-local specialties (sorry, no NC elk), Philpott’s drive to serve the best quality ingredients on his approachable menu makes him a strong supporter of area food suppliers. Familiarly southern at first glance, Philpott’s fare usually includes an unexpected modern touch. “My food is like me,” he says, citing his father-in-law’s description of him as a “sophisticated redneck.” What will put him over the top on April 21? Having learned from last year’s competition he feels he knows what the voting public really wants. Go ahead, find out if he’s right.

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Chef Ryan Forte. Got to Be  Photo NC Competition Dining Series

Ryan Forte, Southminster The multiple dining rooms at this private residence may not be eligible for Charlotte’s “best of” lists, but Forte fronts a kitchen responsible for an astounding 500 meals every day. On top of that, Southminster boasts a large, active set of gardens right on the grounds. With daily menu changes to keep things interesting, Forte’s got lots of experience in coming up with tasty, healthy meals using seasonal products. So don’t expect the pressure of sending out a mere hundred or so plates at a time to impinge on this chef’s creativity. This is playtime for his team.

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Chef Joseph Cornett. Photo NC Competition Dining Series

Joseph Cornett, Flipside Restaurant Cornett is the protegé of last year’s champ, Jon Fortes. Since then, the two have moved from Mimosa to Fortes’ Flipside empire, whose second location just opened in Rock Hill. With Fortes so occupied, Cornett gets to represent the brand this year. Fear not, diners, you’ll be in good hands. “Joe was one of my sous chefs on both of our winning teams at Mimosa for the last two years,” Fortes told me. “He worked with me for three years there and is very talented.” Talented enough to get through the first round and ready to face up against Coleman’s Asbury team on the 19th. And if Fortes shows up again for the assist, this will be a tough team to beat.

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Chef Neil Bratton. Photo NC Competition Dining Series

Neil Bratton, Local Dish Another entry from south of the border, Bratton comes to Competition Dining from a small Fort Mill eatery where he focuses on traditional southern fare with a few modern details. He feels his experience as part of the Fish Market team in 2014 will boost his chances in this year’s event. It certainly didn’t hurt in winning his first-round duel, setting him up for an April 21 meet-up against Block & Grinder’s Philpott. Bratton’s not fazed by going up against another chef with a similar style. “I’m going to let the food do the talking,” he says. “It gives the diners a chance to vote completely blind, because they won’t have a clue whose food is whose.” And that’s pretty much what Competition Dining should be.

Bon appétit, Charlotte. Whoever tops the brackets this year, the real winners will be the folks in the dining rooms.

For more in info on NC Competition Dining Series check out the full schedule and brackets.

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