Last year, Chapel Hill chef Ryan Payne of Weathervane restaurant seemed to come out of nowhere to demolish his challengers during the Fire in the Triangle competition dining series. Then he brought home the state title.
It was the first year for the chefs cooking competition to go statewide. Started as Fire on the Rock by former Blowing Rock chef and innkeeper Jimmy Crippens, it aimed to attract tourists to his town in the offseason. With some sponsors and the help of the state agriculture department, Crippens took the contest on the road to Wilmington, Raleigh and Greensboro. It was a huge hit and the dinners sold out quickly. This year, the series added Charlotte and Asheville.
Tickets for the Final Fire, which pits the regional winners against each other to declare a statewide champ, go on sale Wednesday. Raleigh is lucky enough to host the finals, starting Nov. 20. The diners and a panel of judges help decide the winner based on three courses incorporating a secret ingredient. The winning chef will receive $4,000, a hand-forged set of knives and a trip to the Culinary Institute of Americas Greystone campus in Californias Napa Valley for a three-day culinary seminar. The runner-up will receive $1,000.
I chatted with Payne, 35, last week to find out what advice he had for the finalists based on his own experience.
When I finally decided to apply for it, thats when my obsession started, he explained.
Payne created a chart showing the most likely secret ingredients based on what had been used before, what was available in state, who was sponsoring the contest. He and his chefs then mapped out possible recipes based on those ingredients.
Payne also would dine incognito once at his opponents restaurants and then return several times, making sure his opponent knew he was there. If I get in their head before the competition even starts, Ive already won the battle, he reasoned.
Payne also decided that the dessert was key to winning. He knew that most of the chefs would excel at creating the appetizer and the entree but might falter on dessert because they are not trained pastry chefs. So Payne and his team worked on dessert recipes that would hit a nostalgic note with diners.
You have to connect with diners on an emotional level, Payne said.
Based on the Twitter postings and Facebook chatter, he succeeded. Diners went crazy for his desserts, playful renditions of MoonPies, doughnuts, funnel cakes, sticky buns and smores. He also did a Twinkie dessert the day Hostess announced it was closing.
This years Fire in the Triangle winner is Dean Thompson, executive chef at Flights restaurant at the Renaissance Raleigh Hotel at the North Hills shopping complex. That comes as no surprise to Payne, who recalled that Thompson had a front-row seat for last years finals, which took place at his restaurant. He spent two days watching us and asking questions, Payne recalled.
When he saw Thompson at an event this summer to announce the Fire in the Triangle finalists, he had the look in his eye, Payne recalled. He was preparing for it.
Well have to wait and see if another Triangle chef brings home the state title.
Weigl: 919-829-4848 or email@example.com; Twitter: @andreaweigl