Competition Dining Quarterfinal #2: Ryan Payne vs. Scott James

Thanks to Becca for taking on Battle “Certified Angus Beef.” It was a great competition between Midtowne Grill’s Chef Scott James and Weathervane’s Chef Ryan Payne. Both chefs used the ingredient succesfully and worked their butts off to produce 3 dishes each for 120 guest diners…no easy task. I even came home with some leftovers =). I’ll let you enjoy the recap from Becca, but I will say that in my mind it was a tough decision as to who would win the batlle, but think in the end it came down to dessert….again!

Thanks Becca for adding a new voice to Competition Dining.

Enjoy,

Johanna

Becca Gomez Farrell here, a.k.a. the Gourmez, All words and photos are mine.

After reading about the somewhat terrifying combination of sturgeon with Perfect Puree for the first night of quarterfinals, a battle that found Chef Adam Rose emerging victorious by a 2% margin, I was nervous about this battle. Were the numbers of secret ingredients being increased along with the stakes?

Not necessarily, host Jimmy Crippen explained. They just like to keep us—and the chefs—on our toes. The singular secret ingredient of this night could not have been better received at our table, where several of the diners admitted hoping for prime rib or steak before Certified Angus Beef was announced. The thrill my fellow diners felt was palpable, though I admitted to some misgivings. Let’s just say that rare meat and I are not the best of friends.

That concern did not matter in the end, because every steak preparation was served fully cooked or medium-rare rather than bloody. Course #1 was Dr. Pepper-marinated, bulgogi-style, Buck Creek skirt steak with radish and cucumber kim chee, candied ginger, and red rice by Chef James of Midtown Grille.

For the record, I can eat spicy food all day long. I say that because this dish was very spicy on first bite for my fellow diners but hardly at all for me. However, they all agreed that the spice was an initial sensation that didn’t last through the dish. I love that the chef went for an Asian-inspired dish to open the evening, and that he attempted kim chee with unusual ingredients, a dish that takes at least a few days to ferment if done in the traditional manner. The steak was pretty tasty, if a little chewy, but the kim chee did not have enough time to produce the powerful flavor I anticipated. It was more of a mildly spicy fast pickle. The candied ginger imparted a tangy sweetness to the spicier elements, but the baby bok choy was my favorite part of the dish along with the grainy red rice. Plus, it was pretty.

Dish #2, by Ryan Payne and Team Weathervane, was rosemary-smoked sirloin with a black bean and corn succotash, crispy duck fat potatoes, and citrus butter.

This dish smelled as good as it looked, and it was a crowd pleaser. I’m not sure how much rosemary I tasted, but those frites were fried to a perfect crisp, which duck fat does amazingly well in my experience. The pat of citrus and chive butter enriched the sirloin and was probably the most essential ingredient in the dish.  The succotash’s slight sweetness worked nicely with whatever sauce was laid beneath it all that had a welcome resemblance to A1.

The first two dishes integrated their ingredients well, but my table thought the use of beef was not that creative. The second pair of dishes made us wonder if the chefs were conspiring. Both were rich, earthy Italian dishes using ground or minced beef. The first, cooked up by the Midtown Grille team and Chef James, was a bolognese with a goat and Ashe County cheese tortellini, portabella mushrooms, and basil.

Talk about a marriage of ingredients! Without the pungent goat cheese tang from the wonton-skin tortellini, the bolognese sauce would have been overwhelmingly bold, but with it, it was delicious. The beef taste came through nicely, though my fellow diners wished there had been a more significant portabella presence. Only a few small slices adorned the top of the beef mound. It was also surprising that the tortellini was the only pasta served for a bolognese, though it was simultaneously creative. I would not have minded a small toss of noodles, though, and I would have left the single basil leaf fresh rather than sautéed.

The second pasta dish, coming from Team Weathervane and Chef Payne, was braised sirloin with skirt steak ragu, potato dumplings, and house-made ricotta.

The texture of the meat in this one was closer to finely shaved or diced beef rather than ground. The sauce was remarkably similar to the bolognese in richness and earthiness, though it had a distinct anise-like quality that may have been fennel or strong tarragon. There were also plenty of olives hidden in the sauce that overwhelmed some palates—I ignored them, not being a fan. The gnocchi served the function of the wonton in the previous dish, but while they were cooked moist, they had a plainer taste and thus were not as good at complementing the sauce’s condensed flavor. It was a great dish, but it suffered in comparison to #3.

After four courses, our table still thought the use of beef was not creative enough, even if it was delicious. And then came dessert. Yes, both chefs took on the challenge of using angus beef in dessert, and they both went for plays on meat and potatoes. They also both reached much higher levels of creative achievement.

Chef James again went first, this time preparing cocoa- and molasses-crusted sirloin with rosemary sponge cake, balsamic cherries, and custard (the “gravy”) made from purple sweet potatoes.

The presentation was gorgeous, though the grayish-purple tone of that “gravy,” was off-putting. I scored it high in several categories but not in all of them because the steak was great by itself, and the cake and sauce were great together, but all three parts did not work so well in combination. It was pretty much eating steak and cake at the same time, and I’m not sure that needs to happen. I could not taste the molasses or cocoa glazing the steak, and I thought the balsamic cherry did not belong at all. But the custard and cake were a great pair and sweet enough that I wanted something more savory to work with them—just not steak. This was the only offering that the crowd favored over the pro judges.

Finally, my favorite dish of the night, and the rest of the room’s, was the potato doughnut with chocolate-covered skirt steak, salted caramel, lemon mousse, and watermelon jam from Team Weathervane.

I never knew I needed chocolate-covered skirt steak in my life, and I say that as someone who has been unimpressed with chocolate bacon. This was an entirely different experience because of the smoky, jerky-like texture of the steak, and it was honestly great eaten by itself or in bites along with a forkful of donut. The salted caramel was used as a thick glaze, and the donut itself was dense, hearty, and fried to an appealing reddish brown. I thought the lemon mousse could have been zestier, but the rest of my table loved it. We all agreed that we could not taste any watermelon and that the presentation was lacking in comparison to #5, but it was definitely the winner in flavor and creativity.

On a night when the professional judges went cow-wild, scoring two dishes above a 94% and most dishes at least ten percentage points higher than the crowd at large, the rest of us opted for a more reserved response of scoring everything between 61% and 72%. But both groups swung the pendulum the same way, crowning Chef Ryan Payne of Weathervane as the winner with 3.6 more percentage points in the final score.

What will Quarterfinal #3 bring

Rebecca Gomez Farrell is an author, editor, and blogger who presently lives in Durham, NC, where her wanderlust has been somewhat sated by all the fantastic food they have in the area. She writes about that food, local cocktails, and various wines and spirits at three different websites: The GourmezCarpe Durham, and WRAL’s What’s on Tap blog. She has a romance novella, horror and fantasy short stories, and personal essays published and is working on an epic fantasy novel.

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