WINSTON-SALEM — A local chef claimed the victory last Tuesday in the first round of a live dining competition featuring North Carolina products. Chef Christian Froelich of Hearth Restaurant at Sanders Ridge winery in Boonville took on Chef Anders Benton of Gia in Greensboro in a culinary battle designed to showcase the state and provide an entertaining experience for food lovers.
“Our mission of Competition Dining is to create emotionally inspiring dining experiences connecting the chef and the farmer to the diner,” explained event founder and host Jimmy Crippen. “Everybody’s a foodie. Everybody loves to eat good food and people love to be entertained.”
Not only do diners get to enjoy the dishes prepared by the competing chefs, but they are also the judges, which brings an even greater level of excitement for food lovers, Crippen said.
Chefs Froelich and Benton were told the secret ingredients that they must use in their dishes around 11:30 a.m. the day of the competition. By 7 p.m. that evening the diners were seated to begin sampling six different courses prepared by the chefs.
Froelich said they couldn’t even have their cell phones with them in the kitchen and all the menu items had to come straight from their heads. Preparing signature dishes from their respective restaurants was also against the rules. The chefs had to pull out all the stops to put together creative, visually pleasing and, of course, tasty dishes to wow the diners who would be voting on their favorites.
The primary sponsor of the Competition Dining Series is the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and the secret ingredients for each competition are items that are grown, raised, caught or made in North Carolina.
“The North Carolina Department of Agriculture has been supporting the Competition Dining Series since it started in 2005 and they have helped me along the way by providing product and promotion and even a little grant money to help us do what we do,” Crippen said. “What we are doing is getting North Carolina agriculture into the hearts and minds of the people in North Carolina.”
Using locally grown produce has been a big part of Froelich’s mission at Hearth Restaurant so he felt right at home continuing to use local products during the competition. Hearth Restaurant gets much of its produce from the organic farm at Sanders Ridge and other local growers. Froelich said the number of other locally grown and made products available to them during the competition amazed him and he discovered new products he planned to bring back to his restaurant.
Nestled well off the beaten path in Boonville, Hearth Restaurant is not a place diners would just stumble upon. Many visitors to the area’s wine region do find the restaurant which is also the tasting room for Sanders Ridge winery, but Froelich hopes his recent win will draw additional business into the restaurant from area locals.
“I hope the folks of Yadkin County would say this is a pretty good restaurant to come to,” he said.
Froelich, who has worked as a chef at Nobles and the Twin City Quarter, where the competition took place, was clearly the favorite to win. During the dramatic introduction of the chefs at the start of the event, the room erupted into applause and cheers at Froelich’s name.
“I’m just glad to be here to support our local Chef Froelich,” said Bonnie Lasky of Boonville. “It was just too much fun and the food was absolutely phenomenal.”
The secret ingredients for the competition were artisan flatbread crackers made by The Accidental Baker in Hillsborough and cheeses from Goat Lady Dairy in Climax.
Froelich, who has competed before in the event, was a bit incredulous at first when learning of the secret ingredients.
“It was weird at first,” he said. “I really thought the crackers would be hardest, but it actually worked out very well. The cheese was a little more of a challenge.”
Each of the six courses were presented during the event and diners did not know which chef made which dish. Crippen cautioned diners at the start to not even try to guess, he said even the wives and mothers of competing chefs had been mistaken in past events when trying to guess who made what.
Just as Crippen predicted, even Christina, Froelich’s wife, incorrectly guessed one of the dishes she thought had been made by her husband.
During the event, diners voted via a smartphone app for each course, scoring it on presentation, aroma, flavor, creativity and use of the secret ingredient.
At the big reveal at the end, Chef Froelich’s dishes had been a savory cheesecake with rosemary garlic cracker crust, pork cheek ravioli atop a bed of braised kale and Brussels sprout leaves, and a lemon custard tart.
“I was really happy with the cheesecake. I thought it was pretty cool, a nice little twist on a savory cheesecake for a lot of people who hadn’t had that sort of thing,” Froelich said. “The ravioli I thought just came out really well.”
The ravioli was one of the dishes that stood out for Crippen as well because of the unique way it incorporated the secret ingredients.
“My favorite was the ravioli. The reason why is they had to make the ravioli, and the flour used was crushed crackers which was the secret ingredient,” Crippen said. “That was not an easy task and the thought process, I thought, was pretty interesting. And anytime you sauté greens and Brussels sprouts with bacon fat, you had me there.”
Froelich will be moving on the next round of the Triad competition and possibly on to the statewide competition which will take place this fall. He said he does not know why he keeps coming back to compete, but he does and he is ready to keep up the friendly competition with other area chefs.
“The strategy is we just stay focused. We do what we love, we don’t get crazy, but we make sure every plate is just true to the flavor and what we are trying to do,” he said.
Christina Froelich said the ravioli and the lemon tart were her two favorite dishes. She said she loved the entire event and the food, but she did get nervous for her husband when it came time for the scores to be revealed. Her nervousness was unnecessary though since Froelich easily claimed the victory.
She said she was thrilled with her husband’s win and also hoped it would draw more folks to visit their restaurant.
“We love the town of Boonville, we love Sanders Ridge winery and the facility is exactly what we dreamed for our restaurant,” she said. “It’s a beautiful spot, great wines, great food, great atmosphere, great people. Just come on out and enjoy it!”
Hearth Restaurant is located at 3200 Round Hill Road in Boonville.
Kitsey E. Burns may be reached at 336-679-2341 or on Twitter @RippleReporterK.