By David Rogers. May 25, 2016. WINSTON-SALEM, NC — No shotgun-wielding Elmer Fudds were in Benton Convention Center Wednesday night, nor even a hare or wabbit. Nope. More than 100 “Joes” and “Pros” wielded a glittering array of knives and forks, digging into culinary treats aplenty thanks to the Winston-Salem segment finale of the Competition Dining Series. With a dessert to die for, the Sam Ratchford-led culinary team from Boone’s Vidalia Restaurant captured top honors and $2,000 in prize money.
COVER IMAGE: left to right, host Jimmy Crippen, Jason Walsh, Sam Ratchford and Julius Kalman. Except where noted, all photos by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
Vidalia Faced Stiff Competition In Defending Champs
In the years after Jimmy Crippen introduced what was originally called “Fire On The Rock” to Blowing Rock and the High Country in 2005 as a Winterfest offshoot, the iconic chef’s jackets presented to each year’s winning team became highly coveted among the competing chefs. Although in 2013 “Fire On The Rock” morphed into something much bigger with the statewide and hugely successful “Competition Dining Series” — still under Crippen’s orchestration — the red jacket tradition persists, meaning as much to competing chefs as the prize money and premium cutlery.
To earn the 2016 W-S series jackets, “Team Vidalia Boom” (Vidalia executive chefs and co-owners Ratchford and Julius Kalman, along with chef Jason Walsh) had to defeat the 2015 defending champions of the Winston-Salem segment, “Team Miller Time,” led by Richard Miller, chef de cuisine for Winston Salem’s Graze Restaurant, joined by Twin City Quarter’s executive chef, Kevin Woods and O’Callahan’s Publick House executive chef, Tim Gallione.
Just one dish can make you or break you.
Competition Dining Series is a “mano a mano” culinary competition in a tournament format. Each night of the tournament, two teams go head-to-head, each preparing three courses based on secret ingredients that are not revealed to them until noon on the day of the event, roughly six hours before they have to plate and serve more than 100 diners — all at the same time. And the diners are the judges.
Each course is scored by “Joe” judges for such things as presentation, aroma, flavor of the secret ingredients and accompaniments, execution and creativity. The “Pro” judges take a deeper look at taste and texture and balance, among other professional judging criteria. The “Chef Ref” adds an element of scoring to the “Pros” calculations, looking at such things as professionalism, sportsmanship (the teams share the same kitchen!), sanitation, and other considerations not readily apparent on the plate.
Ingredient Mandates: Sorghum Molasses and White Pheasant
For the finale, the secret ingredients were revealed to the diners just before they were served as Harrell Hill Farms Sorghum Molasses and Joyce Farms’ White Pheasant.
The Benton Convention Center in downtown Winston-Salem served as the venue for Wednesday night’s finale, with just a few more than 100 diners having paid for the privilege of taking part — and for the opportunity to weigh in on what they liked and didn’t like.
As the years have gone by, Crippen and his team have done a masterful job of adding drama to the event, including revealing the computer-calculated scores for each dish based on a Web-based, diner input “app” on their respective smartphones. Welcome to the 21st century, Wolfgang Puck!
Jules gets an A+ for that dessert.
After the scores for the first four courses were revealed, it looked like Team Miller had the slightest of leads, so experienced Competition Diner participants knew that it was all going to come down to the desserts.
Course 5 was revealed as prepared by Vidalia, described as a “Harrell Hill Farms Sorghum Chocolate Cake, with Chocolate Buttercream, Sorghum Nectarine Ice Cream, Blueberry Coulis, Sorghum Caramel, Alderwood Smoked Joyce Farms Crispy Pheasant Skin.”
In a word, Course 5 knocked the cover off the ball. Vidalia hit a grand slam among the “Joes” and a well-above average and respectable rating from the more discerning “Pros,” for an overall rating of 29.716, almost 75% of the total possible average score of 40.
Vidalia Upset In The Making — And Undoing
Back in the day when “Fire on the Rock” was staged in Crippens Restaurant, where New Public House is today in Blowing Rock, el maestro of showmanship Jimmy Crippen was frequently heard telling diners, chefs and any others that would listen, “You know, just ONE dish can make you or break you in this sort of competition.”
And that is exactly what happened in Winston-Salem’s finale. While Vidalia’s scrumptious concoction soared, Miller Time’s “Harrell Hill Farms Sorghum Chocolate Fudge Cake, with Sorghum Ran-Lew Dairy Buttermilk Ice Cream, Outer Banks SeaSalt Honey Brittle, Blueberry Sorghum Reduction, White Chocolate, Marcona Almonds, and Sorghum Chantilly fell flat with both the “Joes” and the “Pros,” earning just a 20.02 from the public diners and only a 17.6 from the professionals, for an overall rating of only 18.81, or barely 50% of the available points.
One diner noted at the end about the sixth course, “As the signature part of the course, the chocolate fudge cake was woefully executed. The flavor was OK, but you had to have a knife to cut into it and, subjectively, for me it just didn’t fit with all of the other really creative and mostly great stuff on the plate. It would be interesting to know what they did with the sorghum molasses both before and after they added it to the other cake ingredients.”
After the results were announced and all of the photo ops taken advantage of, Blowing Rock News sat down with both Ratchford and Kalman from the winning Vidalia team. When asked about his first reaction to winning Wednesday’s finale and earning a spot in next October’s “Final Fire” battle of champions, a big smiling Ratchford replied, “Finally! I’ve been doing this for awhile.”
He was quick to credit Kalman for the dessert. “That Course 5, the dessert, was Jules’ baby…
Ratchford admitted that the secret ingredients didn’t really pose that much of a challenge for him. “I use sorghum molasses all of the time,” he disclosed. “I love it. It is a great ingredient. Pheasant often tends to dry out a little bit, but I have to say that these Joyce Farms white pheasants were a little more durable than the average pheasant product.”
Laughing when asked about his future in the competition, including October’s battle of the champions, Ratchford conjured up a little Star Trek imagery when he smiled, “Now we are in no man’s land. We are where no Vidalia team has gone before!”
There was no hesitation in Ratchford’s response when Blowing Rock News asked the veteran culinary artiste which of his team’s three courses he liked the best, where they brought the true A-game to the product output. “I thought with Jules’ dessert we couldn’t get much better. Usually our cameraman tonight does the ice cream, but Jules has been practicing. He gets an ‘A+’ tonight, that’s for sure.”
We just had to make it work.
Asked what he thought of his opponent, Miller Time, and Ratchford conceded that there a similarity in their styles. “Their style is really very similar. It really comes down to best execution on any given night.”
Kalman told Blowing Rock News that desserts have become a signature product at Vidalia, so there was little surprise in his mind that they won the day with Course 5. “We do some amazing ice creams at Vidalia, so we had that part of it down. We just had to come up with a good tasting cake and put some good sauces on the plate. We just had to make it work.”
Innovation, Appreciation For A Wily Veteran
Jimmy Crippen was known for his showmanship while a restauranteur in Blowing Rock and the effort that he has made in tweaking what was once “Fire on the Rock” and now a primetime, statewide event is readily apparent.
“We make changes all the time,” Crippen shared with Blowing Rock News at the end of the evening. “This year the changes included allowing ‘dream team’ entries where you can bring in chefs from other restaurants to build your team. They don’t all have to be from the same restaurant. We also changed the pro judges’ evaluations to include items like composition, structure, texture, balance, degree of difficulty…and we added the Chef Ref score into the judging for team management, sportsmanship, sanitation, food costs, time management…things like that.
“We also added giving the chefs a basket of specialized ingredients that they must get through,” Crippen added. “From a business standpoint, that allows us to focus on and promote a lot more of the great products coming out of North Carolina than just one or two secret ingredients. We still use the Pate Dawson food truck and we make the entire pantry accessible to the chefs.”
Reflecting back on his Blowing Rock roots, Crippen conceded that it was good to see Ratchford’s Vidalia team win the Winston-Salem series. “It’s great to see Sam take home that coveted red chef’s jacket. It has been so many years that he has battled, going way back to when we were only ‘Fire on the Rock’ in Blowing Rock. They have come so close so many times. They jumped back in and did here in Winston-Salem and it paid off for them. I am very happy for them.”
Staying Ahead, Appreciating The Past
Innovation and change remain at the top of Crippen’s goals. “I look back at old pictures and old videos of Fire on the Rock,” Crippen said, “and it really brings back great memories of things that we were doing and the people we were doing them with, even pioneering this whole sport. Now that we are in Year #5 in going statewide, it’s fun, but it is what we do now. The challenge for me is to always keep it fresh and keep it moving forward.
“There is a lot of good that has come out of this event over the years,” Crippen observed. “The chefs get great visibility for their restaurants. The farmers get priceless visibility for their products. We are shining a spotlight on the great agriculture of North Carolina and the chefs that cook it up.”
“I miss everything about Blowing Rock,” Crippen said, thinking back. “It was fun. It was a great time and I developed a wonderful life because of my time there and the friendships I forged there. But I am also happy where I am today because I am with my family. I get to go to my grandkids’ softball games and I am a big part of my grandson’s life. For that, I am happy to be where I am at, but yes, I miss Blowing Rock and all the people in it.”