It's noon at Crippen's Country Inn and Restaurant in Blowing Rock, where two chefs and their teams sit anxiously at the table waiting to discover today's mystery ingredient.
For seven years Crippen's, a white-tablecloth restaurant with a cottage next door and rooms above, has hosted Fire on the Rock, a 16-chef competitive dining tournament using only North Carolina-raised food. Each team creates three dishes—an appetizer, main course and a dessert—to be judged by 100 diners.
A tray is plopped down for the quarterfinal battle. The cloth is whisked away and an unusual fish is revealed: Siberian sturgeon.
They come in bullet form, whole save for the head and tail.
The fish were delivered an hour ago from the farm in Happy Valley, a scenic mountain community 10 miles north of Lenoir in Caldwell County.
"I bet neither of you have cooked with this fish," says Jimmy Crippen, who created the contest. "I've been in the business for 27 years and never had sturgeon. I'm excited to try it."
Soon the fish, and the caviar it produces, will appear on North Carolina menus and in fish markets and specialty food stores in the Triangle.
It has been a long wait. The first fingerlings arrived from Canada in 2006, and the sturgeons used in tonight's contest are among the first to be processed. The group expects to sell caviar by Christmas.
"It's kind of like raising children," says Elisabeth Wall, marketing, media and sales coordinator for Atlantic Sturgeon and Caviar Company. "You do best practices all the way along and pray for the best."
The sturgeon and caviar farm started in 2004 with four partners, operating under the name La Paz. It is the first farm of its kind in North Carolina and only the fifth in the U.S.
Joe Doll, a former international cargo pilot, noticed the depletion of wild sturgeon while flying over Russia. His colleague Bill White, a scientist, helped develop the farm's processing technology, down to handcrafting the stainless steel tanks.
The two sought the advice of N.C. State professors Jeff Hinshaw, a biolgist, and Dr. Tom Losordo, an engineer, who consult with the aquaculture industry. When White died, he gave his shares to N.C. State.
Losordo remembers his surprise when the partners approached him about sturgeon. "I fully expected them to say 'tilapia,'" says Losordo, who has helped jump-start nine tilapia farms in North Carolina. "He said, 'I think we're going to do sturgeon for caviar,' and I said, 'Whoa, OK.'"
"The altitude is too low for trout, and tilapia never really excited us," says Doll, the managing partner. "This is a very unique fish, ancient and very little is known about it. We're learning a lot every time we turn around. Every question we ask seems to be another question and project."
Raising sturgeon requires significant financial and emotional investment. It takes three years to verify the gender of a sturgeon and another three years for the females to produce caviar.
At Happy Valley, there is a four-tank nursery and 12 grow-up tanks, 25 square feet each. Water, 720,000 gallons drawn from the valley, is recycled every hour and a half. Timed robots feed the 16,000 fish—Atlantic, Russian and Siberian sturgeon.
In captivity, sturgeon are expected to grow to 45 to 50 pounds and 5 feet long. The farm raises three species: Atlantic, Russian and Siberian, which produce standard, ossetra and berry caviar, respectively.
This is the only North American farm where ossetra is harvested because this species of sturgeon is endangered and cannot be caught in the wild. Farmers expect to harvest 100,000 pounds of sturgeon meat and two tons of caviar each year. One-quarter of the caviar will be sold directly to consumers. The rest will be sold to regional distributors, which will sell to restaurants and groceries within 200 miles of the farm; Petrossian of Paris will offer the caviar online.
The farm will sell all of the meat. "We think of it as the steak of seafood," Wall says. "We think that it will replace salmon on some of the menus, that this is the new, better, exclusive meat. We're not going to flood the market; it'll be a specialty item."
Sturgeon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and is marbled like salmon with a texture similar to swordfish or monk. It takes well to poaching or pan-searing before being baked in the oven.
Caviar is best enjoyed in its plain state with a silver or plastic spoon. It's thought that a metal spoon detracts from the flavor.
Back at Crippen's, diners are buzzing about their meals. The difference between the two chefs is less than a percentage point.
Chef Andrew Long of Storie Street Grille suspected the ingredient would be sturgeon because he knew about the farm in Happy Valley. Although he readied a menu in advance, he wasn't entirely prepared. "When I was butchering it I thought I was butchering a dinosaur. It was awesome, but it's not like any fish you've ever cut."
His strategy was to smoke the fish like he would salmon because of its oily quality. His appetizer, a sturgeon-spiked crab cake resting in a delectable coconut curry broth, and his out-of-the-box desert, a maple-grilled sturgeon stuffed wonton, earned high marks.
Michael Foreman, chef at Bistro Roca, says he was relieved to see a new fish because he's mainly been buying mahi and flounder from the N.C. fish market. "When we saw him bring the pan out and we saw him bring the towels we were like, 'Oh, God, it's mahi,'" he says. "I love sturgeon, actually, it's one of my favorite fish. I'm not much for a seafood eater, but I absolutely adore sturgeon."
He hopes to be first on the list to get the caviar.
When the votes are tallied, Foreman ekes out a win on the strength of his entrée, a low-country style sturgeon with golden beet and goat cheese polenta, broccoli di rabe, crispy wonton and low-country hash.
He knew to work the bone line but to allow the exoskeleton to melt and break down, which created a succulent filet that married with the creamy polenta.
For Crippen, the secret ingredient is exactly what the Fire on the Rock competition hopes to promote.
"All of a sudden there are 100 people that are all very well versed in sturgeon and they all live in this market," he says. "I'm going to tell my chef to put in on the menu because it's an unusual fish, but it's not a scary fish."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The steak of the sea."