encore (e): How did the Competition Dining Series develop a relationship with Goodness Grows in North Carolina?
Jimmy Crippen (JC): It came through Crippen’s (the inn and restaurant that the Crippens own and operate in Blowing Rock, NC). We entered The Best Dish in NC [contest] in 2006. When we won that competition, I met the gentleman, Matt Tunnell, who started it. I had one year under my belt with Fire on the Rock, which was a stage show during the Blue Ridge Wine and Food Festival. So, I called Matt. He loved the idea. “Let me provide all the food!” he said. He got to work utilizing relationships to get all the food we needed to conduct the battle. I feel it’s a great way to promote local—to promote NC agriculture products.
e: Tell us about the Battle Wagon, the big truck that goes to each event with you.
JC: The truck was born through my partnership with Southern Foods, [which has] allowed me to take this statewide. We only feature their foods. They have the largest selection of NC products in the area—if you want NC products, they’ve got it all.Even though they’re a large company, they operate like a small company.
Our first featured ingredient was purple sweet potatoes from Stokes County—the president of the company went out to the farm and said, “This is what we’re doing; we’d like to feature your food.” It’s great to work with people who are not afraid to go to the farmer. If you are a busy restaurateur, it can be hard to have the time to get in your car and go to the farm.
e: You work with a lot of chefs; what sort of responses do they have to local ingredients?
JC: Last week we featured shrimp from Mitchell’s Seafood in Sneads Ferry. I loved it. I called my chef back at Crippen’s and said, “From now on I want you to buy this shrimp.”
Since Southern Foods is the biggest supplier, we fill that truck with almost all NC food. One of the chefs said it’s like being a kid in a candy store in there. The chefs get to work directly with that product all day. [Marc Copenhaver of] Marc’s on Market had Battle Shrimp, and he turned around and did the same thing, [saying,] “I want to order that shrimp for my restaurant.”
e: People travel to attend these events. How do you think a high-profile, high-end, fine-dining competition has enhanced the image of the local food movement?
JC: The neat thing about independent restaurateurs is that we work with raw product—that means you are not going out and purchasing processed food, heating and serving. It means if you want stock, it’s all raw. That’s what makes it local agriculture, it’s vegetables and chicken bones in a pot.
It’s gastro-tourism at its best—traveling the state sampling the creative cuisine of NC! Even just pulling Clarke Merrell of Circa 81 in Morehead City and Anthony Garnett from Coral Bay Club in Atlantic Beach—they are bringing family, friends and staff members who are staying, eating at other restaurants, shopping and spending money in Wilmington.
e: What do you wish the public knew about competition dining?
JC: That’s it’s the most fun you will ever have dining. The most important part of it is that your vote counts. There’s an awful lot of underlying benefits that take place, and one of them is that the chefs get direct feedback. They can’t put out their restaurant’s menu—it’s against the rules. They have to create.
These food shows—I cringe every time these poor chefs have to stand in front of a panel of judges and take criticism. This way they’re telling you by voting. You can see real and instant feedback. I like to say when we have a close vote that they just ran out of laps. It’s like NASCAR: By the time they got to the 500th mile, this guy’s ahead by a hundredth of a mile, but if they went around again, the other guy would be ahead by a hundredth of a mile. They just ran out of laps.
e: Can you give us an estimate on how you think the competition benefited Wilmington economically?
JC: Every event sold out [for $49-$59 a ticket over two-and-half months, with competitions taking place twice a week.] We rented rooms at Shell Island, rented the venue, and Shell Island kept the bar sales and tips. We rented the mobile food unit and rented from Waste Management. The impact is substantial, [especially during a time of year when] normally a place would not be at full capacity.