I love my job. I didn’t always, but circumstances have led me full circle back to the place I once left because I was very unhappy – and it is completely different than it used to be. I consider myself very lucky to be able to do something to pay my bills that also brings me fulfillment on a more personal level. I am all too aware that not everyone has the opportunity to do what they love for a living; I feel blessed. Other people seem to notice, too, as they comment about how both I and my place of employment seem to be thriving. It’s a good fit.
I have been privileged to witness another good fit in the person of Jimmy Crippens and the cooking phenomenon that is Competition Dining NC. Knowing well that it takes a team of people to make a success of any venture, I am sure that Jimmy would be quick to tell me that he is far from a one man show; it takes a small army of people to make this fantastic program work. Yet, when I think about this competition and the dining events thereof that I have enjoyed, I think first of Jimmy. He is the face of these competitions, the Master of Ceremonies, the champion of the cause who spearheaded the move to make it what it is today; he is the one visible constant over the years of building a local cooking competition into a statewide program. He seems the perfect person to be the face and voice of this movement; it’s a good fit. I have to assume he loves his job, too, because this stuff is hard work that invades your consciousness nearly 24 hours a day; he has to be passionate about it or he could not muster the stamina that it requires to make it a success. By the way, Jimmy has had another job – another life entirely – that he has now decided to put in the rear view mirror to permit him to embrace this program full time.
The competition that Jimmy and countless others have no doubt made sacrifices to usher into its current state is officially known as the “Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series.” It’s mission is to raise awareness regarding the origin of the food that we consume; to support local and regional growers, manufacturers, and artisans who create our food here in North Carolina; and to showcase the talents of the chefs and restaurateurs who use these products to create the tasty dishes we consume when we dine out. Along the way, it has also grown to incorporate other matters of interest like kitchen fire safety and small production, affordable wines that pair well with fine foods. For me, it has been a lesson in the seemingly endless array of fabulous products that are grown or created in North Carolina. I had no idea we made so much stuff right here in our state!
Last year, I wrote about how the events work from a diner’s perspective. What I have been thinking about lately is what it is like from the competing chef’s perspective. While I have not been in the kitchens of this competition, I am acquainted with some who have. The feedback that I have received makes it clear that this competition is about so much more than just cooking; it is a long, hot, grueling day in the kitchen that starts with the announcement of a secret ingredient mere hours before dinner service. For a competing chef and her team, it is every bit as much about creativity, leadership, teamwork, comraderie, humility, focus, and determination as it is about cooking. If anyone thinks that being a good cook alone makes you a shoe-in to win this competition, I can point you to a lot of chefs who will tell you otherwise. It’s a competition of character and stamina as well as cooking; taking yourself too seriously will not lead to success.
Last year, the kitchens used for the local edition of this program that we know as “Fire on the Dock” were small; the competitors had no choice but to work with and around each other to get their food to the dining tables. From what I am told, the competitors who worked well together communicated their needs for space and time to each other, budgeted time with certain equipment so that everyone could get their work accomplished, and even helped each other with plating. The ones that did not play well together did not fare well and, more importantly, didn’t enjoy the experience.
There will be a winner and a loser from each battle – that is a fact. Some of the margins of loss are by mere single-digit point spreads. The losers, it could be said, are not really losers; they just weren’t the statistical winners. It is a very subjective voting process and 70% of the votes are made by “average Joes,” as Jimmy refers to them. It is important for the chefs to remember the basics when devising their menus: We eat with our eyes first, so plating is important; but the taste and texture are ultimately the deciding factors for 70% of the dining room. I think most of us understand that pretty plates with several components are more difficult to create. But only the pro judges – 30% of the vote – are likely to know the skill involved in creating a particular dish. The chefs are well advised to play to the masses and just not worry about the pro judges like me.
Yes, that’s right. These kind folks have asked me to serve as a “Pro” judge at the final three events of Fire on the Dock this year. Clearly, they are using the term “Pro” very loosely. Yes, I know a good bit about food and cooking, and I teach cooking classes and manage a kitchen store. But many of these competitors have extensive culinary education and experience that, by comparison, put me firmly into the “amateur” column. Really, who am I to judge? Maybe they just love me for my blog. Well, no matter, I appreciate the opportunity to participate in these great events that celebrate all things food in North Carolina. I hope the competitors remember to have some fun while they are cooking their hearts out for my dining pleasure. Make some memories, chefs!
If you happen to be within a reasonable commute of the Wilmington area, I hope you will join us for one of these delicious home-grown dining events and be happily labeled a “Docker” by Jimmy, like me. I promise good food, great entertainment, and perhaps some new friends while you enjoy the fantastic views of the intracoastal waterway from the top floor of Bluewater. Make a mini vacation out of it while you are at it; the rooms rates are very reasonable this time of year and a walk on Wrightsville Beach in the relative peace of February or March is priceless. Maybe you can even have dinner at one of the competitor’s restaurants during your stay.
If you can’t make it to Fire on the Dock, be sure to attend one of the events when this delicious road show comes to your corner of North Carolina. Find the full schedule at http://www.competitiondining.com; follow them on twitter at @compdiningnc and like them on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/CompetitionDining
Fire it up, Wilmington! See you at “the Dock!”