The kitchen wars continue.
Chef Neil Bratton of Local Dish on Main Street in Fort Mill won the Got To Be NC Competition Dining Series quarterfinal battle April 21 at Bonterra Dining & Wine Room in an extremely tight competition against Chef Ben Philpott of Block and Grinder on Providence Road in Charlotte.
Twenty-four top local chefs were selected to face off in the Charlotte competition, which brings together some of the Carolinas’ best farms, food and culinary talent.
A secret local ingredient is revealed the morning of the competition, and two teams each create three courses showcasing that ingredient.
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The catch: No restaurant menu items or signature dishes are allowed – creativity is key. At the end of the day, dinner guests rate the six-course meal without knowing which team prepared each dish and cast their votes via an application on their phones to determine a winner.
Joyce Farms Poulet Rouge Fermier was the first of Tuesday night’s secret ingredients. Joyce Farms raises the slow-growing French heritage breed chickens, known for their health and superior flavor and texture, on small free-range farms in the Carolinas.
The second ingredient was fresh pecans from High Rock Farms, a Gibsonville, N.C., family farm more than 200 years old and famous for its pecans, chestnuts and chestnut flours.
Both chefs admitted the two featured ingredients for Tuesday night’s dinner surprised them, but both rose to the challenge.
The competition opened with Philpott’s warm salad of Poulet Rouge confit and cracklins with Little G Lettuces romaine, herbed cider aioli and candied pecans. Bratton countered with the highest-scoring dish of the night, a smoked Poulet Rouge ravioli with crispy chicken skin, oyster mushrooms, asparagus, whole toasted candied pecan halves and a beautiful sauce of Chapel Hill Creamery Calvander, an award-winning raw Asiago-like cheese.
Bratton kicked off the entrée course with a liver-stuffed Joyce Farms Naked Bird chicken breast with arugula and Goat Lady Dairy Classic Chevre, rutabaga puree, smoky baby bok choy and Poulet Rouge jus. Philpott answed by smoking the chicken breast and pairing it with dirty rice, pecans and Andouille sausage with bold black garlic puree and pickled shiitake mushrooms.
The dessert course was a challenge, as bth chefs were required to incorporate both chicken and pecans; however, each devised a similar solution: using the fat of the Poulet Rouge in place of part of the butter in a caramel sauce; but that’s where the similarity stopped.
Philpott knocked the dessert course out of the park with a pecan-crusted peach cheesecake topped with a salted chicken caramel, loaded with chunks of fresh toasted pecans and highlighted with a gorgeous sweet blackberry coulis.
After the competition, Philpott gave props to pastry chef Sam Dotse for the success of the dish.
“That was all her dish, and she knocked it out,” Philpott said.
Bratton came back with a carefully composed approach to dessert: a light but rich round of Kentucky Cloister Wildlflower Honey cake accented by a more subtle salty chicken caramel, with a side of Benton’s bacon-pecan ice cream, and finished with a shard of pecan brittle.
Dinner guests licked the last bit of bacon ice cream from their spoons and loosened their belts a notch as both chefs and their teams were introduced and made their way around the room to sincere applause.
At the end of the night, Bratton inched ahead of Philpott by a score of 30.31 to 29.32 to advance to the next round.
“It was a blast. We had such a good time all day interacting with each other. After tonight, I’m Ben’s friend,” Bratton said.
“I like to take chances with food. I’m willing to go a mile outside the box,” Bratton said of his cooking style, but he said he still remembers his roots: “You cook Southern, you cook from the heart.”
Bratton’s next competition is May 11 against Mike Suppa of Vivace. On May 5, Joseph Cornett of The Flipside Café in Fort Mill faces Ben Miles of BLT Steak.
Charlotte-area battles continue through May 19.
Information and tickets are available at www.competitiondining.com/events/city.