(Article originally published in the November 2016 issue of Cape Fear Living magazine. http://www.capefearliving.com)
Written By: Kharin Gibson | Photographs Courtesy Of: Got to Be NC Competition Dining
Competition is the American way. We thrive on competition, especially when it revolves around our favorite pastime—food. This certainly explains the success of cooking shows like Chopped, Iron Chef, and Cutthroat Kitchen. Nothing whets the critiquing appetite more than an event recognized for folding in a little culinary creativeness, topped with a dash of fierce competition.
This kind of brow-drenching, apron raveling, Wusthof wielding anxiety has come to the eastern side of the Tar Heel state. For over a decade, founder and host, Jimmy Crippen has been growing his dining competition series to statewide proportions encouraging local chefs to showcase their culinary wizardry under fire.
In recognizing the need to increase interest and revenues in the food industry’s shoulder season, Crippen has masterminded the Got to Be North Carolina Competition Dining Series, which has placed particular emphasis and scrutiny on the culinary talent that exists within our state. His brainchild has evolved to include several regional competitions displaying the mastery and ingenuity of our local chefs. This competition also plays a role in representing many of the fine ingredients produced right here in North Carolina.
This single elimination tournament pits teams of food service professionals against one another to create deliciously, gastronomic sensations imbued with excitement. The competition prompts aspiring chefs to create courses with North Carolina mystery ingredients which are only revealed the day of the competition. “It’s really about promoting local chefs and local products that have been either grown, made, caught, or raised in North Carolina,” states Crippen.
This year’s series of competitions began in April and spanned areas from Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Durham, Charlotte, Raleigh, to right here in Wilmington. In each locale, teams were created comprised of three food professionals representing different area restaurants, or in some cases, the same restaurant. These teams have been battling it out to determine who will reach the final competition in Raleigh this November.
This year the competition has come to the Cape Fear region to test the skills, stamina, and resourcefulness of Wilmington’s very own. Four east coast teams were created. the first being Team Pine Valley Market comprised of Executive Chef Chris McCauley and Sous Chef Paul Smith of Pine Valley Market, along with Sugar Island Bakery’s Pastry Chef, Samantha Smith. Second, there is Team Miso Hungry, which includes Executive Chef Jeffrey Porter of Port City Pop Ups, Executive Chef Jameson Chavez, and Executive Pastry Chef Rebeca Edelmira Alvarado-Paredes, both from manna avenue. The third team, Team Ceviche’s from Wrightsville Beach, utilized all members from Cerviche’s restaurant including Executive Chef Sam Cahoon, Sous Chef Edson Juarez, and Sous Chef Eric Smith. Finally the fourth team, Team 65 Roses, includes Kitchen Manager Blake Bedson and Executive Chef Brandon Stark of Michael’s Seafood Restaurant & Catering, and Sous Chef Matthew Shepard of McNinch House Restaurant.
The Wilmington competition was held September 19th, 20th, and 22nd at Bluewater Waterfront Grill in Wrightsville Beach with each night hosting an average of 150 diners. Diners got the opportunity to score each course interactively through a digital voting app. A handful of professional chefs were interspersed throughout the dining crowd to secretly weigh in as well. Each night a team was eliminated, drilling down to Team Ceviche’s who was named the winner, securing a $2,000 cash prize. As the competition draws closer to determining the ultimate winner, Team Ceviche’s will advance to November’s finals.
November’s series will determine the state’s best culinary team. The winning team will receive coveted black chef’s coats from Alsco, $4,000 in cash and prizes from Pate Dawson Southern Foods, handcrafted chef’s knives from Ironman Forge, a 40-quart Grizzly Cooler compliments of Joyce Farms, and most importantly, bragging rights for being the best in the state.
“We’ll be going against some heavy competition. Now it really gets serious,” says Sam Cahoon, Executive Chef of Wrightsville Beach’s Team Ceviche’s. One would assume that the hardest part of these competitions is the secrecy of the ingredients, but this isn’t so for Cahoon. “Really, the hardest part of the competition is cooking in a kitchen that you’re not familiar with,” admits Cahoon. It takes an agile, steadfast leader to maneuver a team and create a successful, strategic plan when meal courses are assigned and new ingredients are revealed last minute. Cahoon feels that part of the advantage his team has is the fact that they are from the same restaurant and already have familiarity working together. “It all comes together naturally,” he added.
The biggest challenge that Cahoon and Team Ceviche’s face is maintaining their endurance. All of the teams endure long days with each round of competition; their mornings are filled with strategy and preparation and their evenings filled with plating several courses for 150 nightly guests. As he pointed out, “You still have to run a restaurant while also trying to be crisp, focused, and ready to compete.”
There is no secret to winning, but one of the things Cahoon did share was that he knew his team had to nail the dessert course. “Most people underestimate the dessert, but you have to leave a lasting impression,” he said, “it’s always the last course that people remember.”
As local champions, more attention is being paid to this Wrightsville Beach team and their restaurant. It’s definitely a gratifying feeling shared amongst them. Cahoon, himself, took note that many of the participants from the competition were in his age bracket, around late twenties and early thirties. “It is nice to see the younger talent of Wilmington starting to shine,” he said proudly.
The Got to Be North Carolina 2016 Competition Dining Series’ Battle of Champions will be held November 11th – 20th at North Carolina State University in the Dorothy and Ray Park Alumni Center. To follow local champion, Team Ceviche’s, or for more information on Battle of Champions, visit competitiondining.com or @compdiningnc on Twitter. Competition dining can also be found on Facebook and Instagram. Use the Hashtag #CompDiningNC to join in on the conversation.