I felt a bit like a celebrity at the event as I was seated at the very front and even introduced as one of the media personalities at the start of the event. Another thing that impressed me was the high-tech social media centered style of the event. Upon arrival we were asked to download a smartphone app and that was how we entered our scores during the evening for each of the six courses we were served.
My friends and I try hard to keep from checking our smartphones all the time while out dining together. We even have a running joke that the first person to check their phone has to pay for everyone’s meal. At this event however, cell phone use was highly encouraged. There were screens at the front of the room that displayed a live feed of the social media posts with the hashtag #CompDiningNC which we were encouraged to use if posting about the event. It’s silly, I know, but a sign of the times I suppose that I again felt like a celebrity to see my Twitter posts up on the screen.
There was great pomp and circumstance with a countdown clock on the big screen ticking down the seconds until the event was to begin. There were snazzy videos shown on the screen, including a very important message about fire safety in the kitchen.
When Chef Christian Froelich’s name was announced as one of the competitors for the night there was a great cheer from the crowd. Christian is the owner and chef at Hearth Restaurant, located at Sanders Ridge winery in Boonville. Earlier that day the competing chefs had been told what the secret ingredients would be that they were to use in preparing three courses each.
I hadn’t eaten very much during the day and was really hungry by the time I arrived for the competition. All of the diners seemed anxious as well for the announcement of what the secret ingredients and theme of the meal was to be. When the host announced that the theme was cheese and crackers, my heart sank a little. I was hungry! I wanted a meal, not cheese and crackers. Oh great, I thought, I should have stopped at Bojangles on the way here. Well, I’m glad indeed that I did not stop at a fast food joint on the way because the unique and delicious dishes prepared by both chefs were unbelievable. Who knew that you can transform simple cheese and crackers into so many fancy meals.
Aside from providing an entertaining experience for food lovers, part of the mission of the Competition Dining Series is to promote locally grown, caught, raised and made products. The secret ingredients for the night were no ordinary crackers and cheese, they were artisan cheese and flatbread crackers from the Goat Lady Dairy in Climax and The Accidental Baker in Hillsborough.
It was amazing to see some of the unusual ways the two chefs incorporated the cheese and crackers into the dishes they prepared.
The first course of the evening was a braised venison shank canape atop a sea salt cracker with cranberry spread and soubise fluid gel made from the Sandy Creek cheese. I confess I had to look up soubise fluid gel before writing this, basically it’s sort of a creamy thick sauce.
Following the venison was a savory cheesecake with the crust made from rosemary garlic crackers. This was my very favorite dish of the evening. I had never before had a savory cheesecake, but it was delightful. It was garnished with a very small green salad and a fig and red onion marmalade. The sweet marmalade and the salty garlicy crust of the cheesecake was just wonderful and refreshing together.
Now keep in my mind, as each of the courses were presented we were not told which chef had made
them. I, of course, was hoping for our local chef to win, but I had to vote my taste buds and couldn’t play favorites as I had no idea who made which dish. As it turns out, my two favorites of the night were made by Christian who did, in fact, claim the victory in the competition.
The third course, and my second favorite dish, was a pork cheek ravioli served with bacon braised kale and Brussels sprout leaves. As you may recall, I’m a huge fan of anything with bacon. I’ll admit that in a restaurant I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to order something with pork cheek, but you know, when in Rome! The most unique thing about this particular dish though was the fact that the pasta for the ravioli was actually made using the crushed crackers as a flour. The entire dish had a nice peppery spice to it that was amazing.
A beef dish, encrusted with crackers was next on the menu, followed by breast of duck with pickled green strawberries. Pickled green strawberries is another thing that doesn’t really sound like it would be good, but it was. The final course was a lemon custard tart.
Throughout the evening there were videos with short interviews of the chefs and lively chatter among the diners as well as we all compared notes on our favorites.
It was just such a unique and exciting experience.
You can, of course, sample Christian’s award-winning culinary masterpieces right here in Yadkin County at the Hearth Restaurant in Boonville. Christian also has been kind enough to share a recipe with me for this week’s column. Here is his recipe for savory cheesecake.
Chef Christian’s Savory Cheesecake
• 1.5 cups Ground Savory Cracker Crumbs
• 1/3 cup Butter, Melted
• 1.5 Tbsp. Sugar, Granulated
Combine well, press into bottom of a greased 9” spring form pan & bake at 350 for 12 minutes.
•12 oz. Cream Cheese
• .25 cups Sugar, Granulated
• 2 each Eggs, Whole
• 12 oz. Soft Cheese, Grated (If it is too soft to grate, just drop it in in small pieces.
• ¾ cup Sour Cream
On medium speed, whip cream cheese well until fluffy. Gradually add sugar until well combined. Add eggs, one at a time until well combined. Fold in cheese and sour cream. Add to pan, and smooth the top. Bake at 300 degrees approximately 30 to 45 minutes or until top has golden color and the center is slightly raised.
Place in refrigerator for at least two hours. Remove and place on counter. Carefully run a warm thin blade around the edges to loosen cake from the sides. Then carefully open spring form pan and remove outside. (You can use a crème brulee torch to warm the outside of the pan to help release the cake.) Place a wide spatula under the crust and lift cake to a cutting board or plate. Cut each slice with a warm blade for a clean, straight edge.
Serve at room temperature or slightly warmed with salad and preserves.