There are probably people playing hockey in Utah. Surely there's a football player biding his time on an Arizona gridiron, and a point guard fated to punch a clock in Maine.
But as anyone who lives in a monosports culture like Quebec, Alabama or North Carolina can attest, games somehow mean more when played in a place where everybody cares about them. That phenomenon extends to competitive cooking, which has become a collective obsession in the small tourist town of Blowing Rock.
Officially, every restaurant in the state is eligible to enter the Department of Agriculture's yearly Best Dish in North Carolina contest, a promotion inaugurated in 2006 to recognize chefs using locally grown products. But the annual ritual has assumed special significance in Blowing Rock, which this year produced three of the competition's 20 finalists. To put that achievement in perspective, Blowing Rockers account for just .0002 percent of the state's population (and that figure's rounded up).
“It's kind of a local thing in Blowing Rock,” explains Andrew Long, Storie Street Grille chef and finalist in the Best Dish's casual dining category. “When it's slow in the winter, it gives us something to work on.”
Still, the likeably modest Long admits that an off-season alone does not a Best Dish hotbed make.
“There's definitely some talent up here, and it's starting to show,” he says.
Blowing Rock's relationship with the Best Dish contest dates back to the event's first year, when Carolyn Crippen persuaded her husband, Jimmy, to enter. Crippen's Country Inn and Restaurant submitted two dishes – a watermelon salad and pecan-encrusted flounder – and took first prize.
“We skipped '07 and '08 because we didn't want to get beat,” Jimmy Crippen says. “We figured we'd call it a day.”
Other Blowing Rock chefs took advantage of Crippen's brief hiatus to make their run at the crown, with Storie Street claiming a third-place finish in 2007 under Chuck Nelson, who now helms the kitchen at fine-dining finalist The Table at Crestwood. Nelson this year will go sauté pan-to-sauté pan with James Welch, chef at Crippen's since its opening in 1994.
“It's kind of like wrestling,” says Crippen, a transplanted Floridian who relishes the gleefully cutthroat nature of the competition. “We look like we're all going at it, but we're all drinking together in the back.”
But even in staged wrestling, there's real blood, and it's clear the chefs aren't faking their reactions to other finalists relying on played-out culinary tricks or techniques seemingly lifted from other restaurants. While competitors spend the months leading up to the contest engrossed in their entries – which, despite the event's title, usually consist of multicourse meals – they don't know what other chefs are planning until their submissions appear on the Best Dish finalists' Web page.
“You're like, ‘Oh, I can't believe he's doing that again,” Long says. “It's fun to talk a little smack.”
Best Dish season warms up early in Blowing Rock, where chefs surreptitiously audition their most audacious culinary ideas at Fire on the Rock, the Iron Chef-style competition held every spring in conjunction with the town's Blue Ridge Wine and Food Festival.
“My secret ingredient last year was sweet potatoes, so I put it on the menu and haven't looked back since,” Nelson says, explaining the origin of his Best Dish-contending sweet potato spring rolls.
This year's Fire on the Rock, including Battles Milk, Apples and Heirloom Tomatoes, gripped the imagination of Best Dish contest administrator Matt Tunnell, who's working with organizer Crippen to expand the competition to include four adjoining counties. Tunnell, apparently charmed by the Blowing Rock contingent, recently invited a team of locals to present cooking demos at the state's “Got to Be NC” Festival.
“At the Ag Center, they were all saying ‘how ‘bout them mountain boys?,'” Crippen laughs. “The mountain boys are taking it.”
Best Dish rules call for finalist restaurants to serve their potentially winning menus for at least four consecutive weeks between May 1 and June 27, during which time three mystery judges (identified by the contest's Web site as “individuals with prominent but separate roles in North Carolina's foodservice industry”) will visit the restaurant to sample the entry. The judges' orders may give them away: While the Best Dish lineup is available to any customer, chefs say some of the more adventurous preparations challenge the town's culinary conservatism.
“We do have an older clientele,” Long says. “It's definitely more conservative. One thing I've noticed is when you get too crazy with descriptions, they'll cut you off. I see it with servers all the time.”
Yet Long has managed to sneak a fair bit of novelty onto his Best Dish menu, which nicely echoes Storie Street's den-like feel. (“When you get as much food traffic as we do, you can't be fine dining,” Long says, obliquely explaining the restaurant's thoroughly suburban décor, down to the jokey pint-sized bear in an apron with a “please wait to be seated” sign hung from his right paw.)
Long's entry kicks off with a manly meat and potatoes salad, featuring porcine-seeped greens tossed with chewy grouper cheeks, fingerling potatoes and crispy ribbons of beets. The well-executed fish and chip starter, smartly bathed in a Cottonwood Low Down Brown Ale vinaigrette, is followed by a plate showcasing two cuffs of curled-up mountain trout standing on end. While the dish is slightly more show-offy than functional, it should sing in season, when the sugar snaps, corn and heirloom tomatoes tucked into the filets are at their peak.
“I'm known for not being a dessert cook,” Long says of his Best Dish's third act, a basic cobbler doused with Yadkin Valley syrah syrup that's pleasantly reminiscent of rough mornings on which breakfast is a berry muffin and a swig of last night's wine.
Cheerwine is the beverage of choice for Nelson, whose Best Dish menu at The Table at Crestwood ends with a fizzy, flaky ice cream Napoleon finished with cola syrup. “You can't get more North Carolina than that, right?” Nelson says.
Nelson's menu also includes a pair of slightly clichéd spring rolls and a terrific sweet potato soup, a creamy, smoky salute to one of the state's leading crops. While 18th century scullery maids probably knew how to make a similar dish, Nelson nudges the recipe toward the present with a sprinkle of fresh cilantro leaves.
But the centerpiece of Nelson's menu is a phenomenal chocolate-ginger duck breast, split and served over crisscrossed carrots, asparagus and a buttery pistachio rice pilaf.
“I came up with that around Easter,” Nelson says of the dish. “With that duck, you could go further with the chocolate, but I guess you have to know when to say when. Sometimes if you overthink or overdo it, it's too much.
Melding chocolate with meat is strongly associated around Blowing Rock with Crippen's, which some years ago put a chocolate steak on its menu.
“Chocolate steak is what we're known for,” Crippen says. Chef “James [Welch's] daughter brought him a chocolate kiss one day, and he came up with the idea. Well, he went on vacation and we pulled it off the menu. And every night, someone asked for it. Now it's what we're known for.”
Chocolate appears during the second course of Welch's Best Dish menu, in the form of bittersweet chocolate shavings atop a lovely greens-and-goat cheese salad. The menu also manages to showcase North Carolina-grown tomatoes, shrimp, pork, bok choy and apples in an ambitious series of dishes, including a spicy bisque, startlingly fresh ceviche, grilled tenderloin finished with a thick, Asian-style coconut sauce and a warm apple tart.
Best Dish entrants are judged partly on how well they market their menu and the local products they're featuring; Crippen is a marketing maven who hobnobs with every guest, many of whom are extraordinarily curious about what his kitchen's planning to do next.
Indeed, Long attributes the concentration of cooking talent in Blowing Rock to residents' enthusiasm for food: “We've got our own scene,” he says. “It's a good crowd looking to eat nice food.”