Fire on the Dock
Feb. 18-April 3, 6:30 p.m.
Bluewater Grill • 4 Marina St., WB
Tickets: $59; finals, $69
Last year Jimmy Crippen and his team brought Wilmington its first Fire on the Dock, a ‘Got to Be NC’ Competition Dining Series, as part of a statewide culinary event, which pits chefs against one another “Iron Chef”-style. They will return to Wilmington on Monday, February 18th, to prove to diners that local hands in the kitchen have as much creativity and panache as any worldwide.
This year’s battles have gotten under way, finishing Asheville in January, and after Wilmington’s completion on April 3rd, moving to Blowing Rock, Greensboro, Raleigh and Charlotte. Sixteen chefs from each region battle it out with secret ingredients by making three courses each based on NC ingredients provided by Pate Dawson-Southern Foods, as well as Certified Angus Beef, Pepsi, Heritage Farms Premium Pork, Freshness from NC Waters programs, among others. The chef who wins each round moves on to the next, continuing the bracket-style pattern. The local finalé crowns the Fire on the Dock winner who then will move forward to the Final Fire held in November in Raleigh.
“The selection process is probably the most difficult part of the entire series,” Crippen says about choosing who competes. “The committee is made up of people from the competition dining group, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Pate Dawson-Southern Foods. Many more than 16 chefs in any given series apply. Most all of them are qualified to compete; that’s why it is a very difficult decision to make.”
The coastal leg of the series will kick off Monday with Scott Grimm of Dockside against Antoine Murray of Cape Fear Country Club. Following weeks will consist of: James Doss of Rx versus Thomas Mobley of The Oceanic on the 19th; Mark Lawson of Blockade Runner—East Oceanfront Dining versus Joanie Babcock of Southern Exposure (Faison, NC) on the 20th; Clarke Merrell of Circa 81 (Morehead City) versus Shane Tyner of King Neptune on the 25th; Josh Woo of Yo Sake versus Mark Andrews of Bald Head Island Club on the 26th; on the 27th James Rivenbark of South Beach Grill will battle Gerry Fong of Persimmons (2012’s finalist from New Bern, NC, who battled the winner Andy Hopper of Chefs 105, Morehead City); Brent Poteat of 22 North versus Pat Greene of Elijah’s on March 4th; and Kirsten Mitchell of Cameo 1900 versus Josh Petty of Sweet N Savory on March 5th.
Having originated as Fire on the Rock in Blowing Rock, NC, at Crippen Country Inn and Restaurant—which Crippen closed last week to fully concentrate on the series annually—the restaurateur acts as the master of ceremonies at every event, bringing a boastful personality to fill out the show. Pro-judges make up 30 percent of the score, featuring professional culinarians, writers, editors and foodies. Likewise, diners judge the event with their vote counting toward the majority of the chef’s finalized score at 70 percent.
“I spent seven years working on this concept in Blowing Rock,” Crippen iterates. “The fact that the people have a stronger say, in my opinion, is the reason for the success of this series. The pro-judge vote was added as a request by many of the participating chefs—as a way to keep the general public honest and not turn this whole thing into a popularity contest.”
Aside from eating a plethora of original, on-the-fly courses (the chefs cannot bring a catalogue of recipes, nor divert to their restaurant’s menu or specialty dishes) prepared the day of, from noon to 6 p.m., the competition challenges their aptitude under pressure. “This is where honesty and integrity come into play,” Crippen clarifies. “If they do not play by the rules, it’s no fun anymore. And to be honest, if it’s not fun, I don’t want to play.”
Chefs can bring some of their own tools, which have to pass the Chef Ref’s inspection, and are required to turn over their cell phones upon beginning the challenge. Then, their three-member teams will get to work prepping and cooking until 6 p.m., with dinner service beginning at 7 p.m.
“We monitor everyone’s score as the battles are going,” Crippen states. The dining series is technologically advanced, wherein folks can download an app on their iPhones and Androids for easy voting (paper is also provided for the luddites). New this year will be the addition of pictures accompanying each vote so folks will see what they just ate before rating the food on flavor, creativity, presentation, use of ingredients, etc. “The dining public has a responsibility to vote their palate,” Crippen distinguishes. “I make that a very strong point in every battle.”
Quite a few innovative creations have come out of the competition dining series, many of which chefs have featured on their restaurant’s menus after returning from battle. Mountain Dew, quail, strawberry moonshine, bison, chocolate, curry, NC flounder, Ashe County cheese and other items have topped the list of secret ingredients. “My favorite dish that I still talk about actually happened many years ago,” Crippen ponders. “The title was ‘cinnamon raisin lingua bread pudding’; the battle was beef and tongue.”
Diners should come with adventurous palates; tickets to the events are $59 without gratuity, tax or beverages; preliminary tickets, which begin March 11th, will be $69. The finals fill up fast, so it’s desirable to order tickets ahead of time. The chef brackets can be found at www.competitiondining.com.
“There is more positive and good that comes out of this series just by being involved than the win or the loss,” Crippen reminds competitors. “Chefs come together at other times to do good things; your community has already shown that more than once.”