Final pairing of 2015 Competition Dining in Charlotte sets scene for fall championship

By Alison Leininger

May 21, 2015

Tuesday, May 19th’s Competition Dining final showcased two chefs helming relatively new restaurants in the Charlotte area. Neil Bratton opened the doors to Fort Mill’s Local Dish in 2012, and Brent Martin has led the Summit Room’s kitchen on East Boulevard since its 2014 inauguration. Both are noted for Southern-inspired fare that sources as many local ingredients as possible.

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Yet each restaurant stays true to its moniker: Bratton’s menus feature approachable, familiar dishes, while Martin seeks to elevate traditional ingredients with unusual pairings and modern techniques. In Competition Dining, where the audience chooses the winner, it’s a tricky dance for competitors to show off their skills for the professional judges without alienating the average Joes. With the voting split 30/70 in favor of the Joes, we all know who really wields power in the dining room.

For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure of this food-as-spectacle experience, here’s how it goes down. Walking into the entrance of Bonterra restaurant, one immediately notices well placed screens cut off any glimpses of the kitchen– the chefs don’t make an appearance until after the dinner. Competition Dining takes the “secret” in secret ingredient very seriously!

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After checking in, you are led to your seat in Bonterra’s elegant, high-ceilinged dining room, which is decorated with “Got to be NC” signs, as well as the coveted red chef’s jacket hanging near the ceiling. Order a cocktail or glass of wine from Charlotte’s most extensive wine cellar and chat with your table mates. Soon your host Jimmy Crippen—founder of the Got to Be NC dining series—takes center stage. With PA system and well-placed screens and projectors, he leads you through a high-energy introduction of sponsors, chefs, judges and special guests (such as media, ahem). Eventually an onscreen countdown begins, fittingly accompanied by Pink Floyd, and the sense of anticipation heightens tangibly.

The first stop in your culinary tour is to meet that evening’s secret ingredient. With two finals held this year, concluding the two separate brackets, the organizers opted for repeating their “Land of Milk & Honey” theme for both. This land is populated with chocolate milk, buttermilk and cream from Ran-Lew Dairy, as well as Cloister wildflower and ghost pepper honeys.

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Chef Brent Martin of Summit Room and team. Photo courtesy of Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series

The order of the courses is determined by the “Chef Ref” in the kitchen, so plates may alternate between chef teams or may come grouped, which deepens the mystery of whose dish is whose. Before each delectable creation comes out, its description is blazoned on the screens…and these explanations can get pretty long, with farm names and cooking methods tacked on. Our first course included “Cloister Wildflower Honey infused Maple Leaf Farms duck liver paté,” along with seven other introductory elements. Fortunately the descriptions are left up while diners eat and vote, so you can refer back to determine whether the ingredients are incorporated well, or just what the heck was in that delicious sauce.

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Cloister Wildflower Honey infused Maple Leaf Farms duck liver paté. Photo courtesy of Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series.

The Competition Dining phone app presents a ballot with categories for each course, updated in real time as they are announced in the dining room. Once you click on the course, you are asked to grade the dish’s aroma, presentation, flavor (overall and also of the secret ingredient), use of that ingredient, execution, and creativity. The scale runs from 0, indicating “weak”, up to 5, which denotes “superior, even for a fine dining restaurant.” It can be challenging to parse out all these details, especially when trying to judge aroma for a salad. But for any foodie, it’s an interesting guided exercise in carefully analyzing each dish–something we all do anyway, right?

The highlight was that first course, the dish with the honey-infused foie gras. It came as a quenelle alongside a delicate spring salad drenched in a deeply savory buttermilk dressing and a handful of biscuit-crumbly buttermilk crackers. While much can’t be said about the aroma, the presentation set high expectations and the taste met them.

The chefs typically each present an appetizer, a main course, and a dessert. Our second appetizer was a bacon-spinach mezzaluna ravioli in a rich buttermilk alfredo sauce, topped with a honey-drizzled kale chip. The two mains were a honey-glazed pork belly on a sweet corn-cauliflower pudding, and braised beef with buttermilk fried oysters atop a risotto made with honey-roasted squash.

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Bacon-Spinach Mezzaluna Ravioli in a rich buttermilk alfredo sauce, topped with a honey-drizzled kale chip. Photo courtesy of Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series

After the last two courses—a clever tres leches cake infused with honey, and a buttermilk-honey cake with ice milk—the two teams are finally brought out to meet their adoring public. Then, aided by graphics displayed on those ever-present screens, host Jimmy Crippen reviews each course in turn, revealing the chef behind it and the points assigned by the “Pros” and the “Joes.” Finally, the total scores are announced and the winner can celebrate. Tuesday night the winner was Brent Martin of the Summit Room who received a check for $2,000, red jackets for his team, and a beautiful hand-crafted knife from Ironman Forge.

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Chef Cornett and Chef Martin each receive a grand prize of $2,000, a handmade chef knife by Ironman Forge and the coveted “Red Chef Jacket” provided by ALSCO. Photo courtesy of Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series

The excitement may be over in Charlotte for a brief time while the competition moves on to Winston-Salem, continuing to pull in chefs from across North Carolina. But stay tuned for October’s Battle of Champions, which brings together the winners from every bracket in the state. Both Chef Martin and Joseph Cornett of Fort Mill’s Flipside Café will be traveling to Raleigh to see if they can claim the final prize. With the Flipside team angling for a three-peat this year, you can expect Charlotte’s dining scene to blaze bright in North Carolina this fall.

For more info www.competitiondining.com.

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