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Knocking Down the Competition:

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Clarke Merrell of Circa 81 in Morehead City.

Clarke Merrell of Circa 81 in Morehead City.

And so we are at the sold-out finals of Wilmington’s tastiest competition, Fire on the Dock, a Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series, now in its sophomore year on the coast. The contenders will represent the same matchup as the finals of 2012, when Gerry Fong of Persimmons in New Bern fires off against Clarke Merrell of Circa 81 in Morehead City tonight at Bluewater Grill. The winner will get $2,000, the coveted red chef coat and a spot in the final fire to compete against chefs in the statewide competition this November.

Gerry Fong of Persimmons in New Bern.

Gerry Fong of Persimmons in New Bern.

Founded by Jimmy Crippen—a restaurateur from Boone, NC, who sold his business in January and now focuses on running the series wholly—the Fire on the Dock host maintains a jovial and larger-than-life personality during every showdown. Held twice weekly since February, his approach toward keeping the competition light, fun and interactive makes the evening of casting cellphone ballots and judging six courses like a game show of culinary enlightenment. With the help of Christi Ferretti of Pine Valley Market—who’s slated to help out a lot in the upcoming NC battles, as Crippen looks to expand the event into SC—the night moves along swimmingly between laughter and eating.

Of course, back in the kitchen where two chefs hash out menus around a secret ingredient, revealed only six hours before dinner service, the vibe is a little more serious. After all, sending out 120-plus plates per course requires a heavy dose of focus, determination and mandated team work. The chefs and their two sous chefs race for ingredients, and chop, braise, sous vide, poach, dress and stir to finalize a vision they hope will convince diners of positive votes. Judged on creativity, aroma, flavor, presentation and more, the outcome is always a toss-up.

Over the past 12 weeks, 13 Wilmington chefs were knocked out of the finals, though not without a fight. In some instances, the votes came down to a  100th of a point.

Competition dining presents high stress. A shared kitchen with six workers and a chef ref can provide hot, tight quarters and a race against time. Working only with what’s at hand—though it’s still quite a bounty thanks to sponsors like Pate Dawson Southern Foods, Heritage Farms and more—some chefs prevail (Gerry Fong’s use of the secret ingredient, a crispy hybrid striped bass, in a chocolate dessert), while others go down but not without a valiant fight (I am looking at you, James Doss: Poaching 120 eggs and serving at once deserves high praise!).

Every week in which I’ve judged during the 2013 season, only a couple of times have the plates I’ve voted for favorably taken their chefs to the top. Pro judges get 30 percent of score, while diners, or Joe’s votes, mandate 70. Regardless of the outcome, what’s true for every competition is the liveliness and good sportsmanship of all involved, from audience and fans to chefs. I’ve sat with newcomers (local and tourists) to the competition who walk away simply floored by the creativity and use of ingredients (candied beef in dessert). Many often find a new food item to cook with more so at home (kohlrabi). I’ve also sat with fun jokesters who asked for a side of ketchup, only to have the joke turned on them as they were greeted by a Heinz rep tableside.

I’ve sat with foodies who reveled in the simplicity of a perfectly grilled angus filet served with a runny egg, without too much razzamatazz covering up the meal otherwise. I’ve sat with judges who liked the use of garlic leeks in a dessert cake while others scowled at its pungency. I’ve sat with folks who loved the standard pork, collards and grits dish inevitably served at practically every battle I’ve attended, while others roll their eyes of the expectant NC meal.

The bottom line is this: Every palate is different in competition dining. And because of that, keeping the focus on having fun is where success lies. For chefs it should be about accepting a massive challenge, which can really put a spark of creativity back into the kitchen. While it’s easier to say than do (especially considering I am the one merely eating), it can’t be denied that to test fortitude on this scale is a win of its own accord. Working outside of one’s own kitchen and facing unforeseeable disadvantages (broken oven, lack of one’s own tools) tightens skills in the long-run.

Sure, upsets happen in competition dining, but it doesn’t mean it’s a bad reflection on a chef or his or her restaurant—or on a city, for that matter. Wilmington has a lot to be proud of. Though we don’t have a dog in tonight’s fight, it’s not because our chefs lack knowledge, ambition and flavor profiles. And face it: This is not the NC Board of Elections. Dare I say it’s quite unlikely we’ll see a restaurant close up shop because of a loss; in fact, most restaurants benefit from the exposure regardless of a win. Perhaps the chefs will take a shot to their egos if they lose, but hopefully in the long run, they will gain a newfound tenacity to push themselves even further in their own kitchens. For us, that means a more flavorful Wilmington—a more receptive dining clientele who look for adventurous chefs that wish to continue bettering everything they do.

Good luck, Gerry Fong and Clarke Merrell; it’s (almost) showtime. But don’t get too comfy: I know a few chefs already planning their return of toques to 2014’s series.

Follow Shea Carver as she tweets from the finale tonight: on Twitter.

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