Last night was the first round of Fire In the Triangle semifinals. The bar has been set high in the previous rounds- would the chefs be able to live up to their past performances? I’m tickled to say they did so and went above and beyond our expectations.
While we were anxiously awaiting the announcement of the Secret Ingredient, we got a great refresher from the Office of the State Fire Marshal on fire safety. (This time of night at Competition Dining is a great opportunity to have the undivided attention of every single diner!) Do you know what activity is the number one cause of home fires and burn injuries? Cooking. But you can protect yourself by remembering the OSFM’s catchy little motto: Stand By Your Pan. Don’t leave your cooking unattended. Thanks to the Office of the State Fire Marshal for the reminder!
There was quite a bit of speculation regarding the Secret Ingredient before the announcement. With only three battles left and so many great NC goodies already chosen, what remained? Noah was gunning for crab, as he is a huge seafood lover. I have been waiting for sweet potatoes or tomatoes myself. Another tasty guess was North Carolina wine. That would be fun! But it turns out, we were all wrong. Gloriously, deliciously wrong.
The Secret Ingredient was…. North Carolina cheese!
There was an audible gasp and thunderous applause from the audience last night when the Secret Ingredient was announced. Our table mates broke into huge smiles. Everyone loves cheese, and NC has some amazing ones. Last night’s cheeses were the Hillsborough Cheese Company‘s farmer’s cheese, Goat Lady Dairy‘s chèvre, and Ashe County Cheese‘s sharp mountain cheddar. The chefs had to use at least two of the cheeses in every dish.
The competition was fierce from the beginning.
The first course of the evening was Goat Lady Chevre Maragrite with Mushroom Sherry Demi, Truffled Yukon Gold Potato Francobolli, Farmer Cheese Sauce and Asparagus from Chef Rose. Noah fell in love with the way this course smelled, exclaiming that he would give it at least a three or four on smell alone (he’s a tough judge, so that’s high praise.) I agree- it smelled wonderful, and it tasted just as good. I couldn’t help myself from eating every bite, even though there was a long night of dining ahead.
The second course was Ashe County Mountain Sharp Cheddar & Beer Soup with Country Nehi Grape Sausage, Housemade Cheddar Pretzel and Smoked Farmer Cheese from Chef Payne. Beer and cheese soup has been done before, of course, but I’ve never had Nehi grape sausage- it was so creative, and so delicious! I loved the presentation of this dish- who would have thought soup, sausage, and pretzels could look so pretty?
The third course was a Quail Breast Medallion with White Balsamic & Shallot Gastrique, Farmer Cheese Potato Gratin, Sharp Mountain Cheddar Balsamella and Fried Shallots from Chef Rose. This was another course that we could smell before we could see, and it definitely got our mouths watering. The quail was perfectly cooked and delicately flavored (the gastrique was incredible!) I was very impressed that the cheese came forward and shined in this dish without overwhelming the more subtle flavors. As soon as I finished this course, I immediately craved it again. This course was my favorite dish of the evening.
Course four was raised Veal Cheek Ragu with Seared Sea Scallop, Goat Lady Chevre Grits and a Sharp Mountain Cheddar Wafer from Chef Payne. You can’t go wrong with seafood and grits in the South, y’all. My little seafood lover raved about the scallop, but I loved the veal cheek ragu, which was melt-in-your-mouth perfect. It was challenging to get a bite of all the components in my mouth at one time, but it was well worth the trouble- all the elements worked together splendidly.
At this point in the evening, I’m usually too full to even think about dessert and how I’m going to fit it in my belly. But last night, I was excited! These chefs did such a fine job of showcasing the Secret Ingredient that I couldn’t wait to see what they would pull out for dessert.
The fifth course was a Chevre & Farmer Cheese Cannoli with Sharp Mountain Cheddar Beignets, Summer Fruits & Local Honey from Chef Rose. The cannoli flavor was wonderful, although the cheese filling in mine was a bit runny. I liked the idea of the cheddar beignets, but they were much more bready than a traditional beignet- someone at my table likened it to a hushpuppy, and that’s an apt comparison.
The final course of the evening was the Sharp Mountain Cheddar Sticky Bun with Farmer Cheese Icing and Apple-Cranberry Compote from Chef Payne. In these competitions, it seems dessert wins it every time, and last night was no exception. Everyone I talked to loved this dessert with a fiery passion, hands down. It was glorious- a perfect sticky bun topped with crunchy nuts, thin, sweet icing? Yes, please. I’m also a big fan of apples and cheddar together. This dessert was a winner. Noah loved it so much he made a point to speak with Chef Payne’s pastry chef after the meal to tell her how much he enjoyed it. This is another dish I would love to savor again!
Noah really enjoyed the night, as well! Here’s his recap:
I thought that the first course was pretty good. The third one, with the quail, was really good, too. But the one that topped them all was the last course, which was the sticky buns! I don’t know why I liked the sticky buns so much, but they were just so good.
The people at our table were pretty nice. Our server was very nice, too. Thank you to Mr. Jimmy for having us over. Thanks to the chefs, too. They are really good at what they do.
Both chefs did a wonderful job with bringing the Secret Ingredients to the forefront of their dishes. These North Carolina cheeses really shined last night thanks to these creative chefs and their talented teams. Both Chef Rose and Chef Payne did a fantastic job – thank you both for a memorable evening!
But there can be only one winner, and last night, that was Chef Ryan Payne of Weathervane! Get the official vote tally over at the Competition Dining site. Chef Payne will now move on to the Finals of Fire in the Triangle!
Congratulations to Chef Payne on his win and best of luck in the finals! And thanks to all the wonderful sponsors that make Fire in the Triangle possible!
Noah Kaasa is a kid who loves good food and loves to talk about it. He is a a rising fourth grader and lives in Durham, NC with his family.
Gabrielle is a partner in Succotashed. At Succotashed, our personal chefs offer in-home culinary education and event catering. Our mission is to create inspired, seasonal cuisine with simple, real, and delicious foods. Learn more about our workshops and events. Read our blog for delicious recipes, insightful articles, and helpful cooking tips. When she’s not in the kitchen, Gabrielle enjoys writing, photography, and adventuring with her partner, Bill, and son, Noah.