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Chefs compete, you win 

Chef Brandon Stark of Michael's Seafood

Courtesy Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series

Chef Brandon Stark of Michael's Seafood

Being in the middle of two competing chefs using all their tricks is surprisingly intense—and fun.

The culinary battle I was witnessing was between Chef Benjamin Guaman from Governors Club in Chapel Hill and Chef Brandon Stark from Michael's Seafood in Carolina Beach. They were matched in the Feb. 3 preliminary round of the Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series.

Competing chefs are given a secret ingredient shortly before the evening begins. They make three courses, incorporating that ingredient in each of them. Other ingredients come from a "mobile pantry" provided by competition organizers. The chefs may not make a dish that is served on their restaurant's menu or considered one of their signature dishes. Passing judgment are three pros, whose votes count for 30 percent, and a dining room full of "Joes," who vote via a phone app.

A collective sigh of relief mixed with cheers went up when the room learned that evening's secret ingredient was apples from Perry Lowe Orchards. Much more appealing than, say, N.C.-grown rutabagas!

If you're an incredibly picky eater, stay home. You cede control to the chefs. You won't know which chef made which dish, nor what the dish is until a few minutes before it arrives at your table. You may be served something relatively tame, such as Guaman's Pink Lady Apple Scottish Salmon with parsnip mousseline, sautéed Lacinato kale and apple beurre blanc.

On the other hand, the chef may take a risk, as Stark did, and whip up Gold Rush Apple-marinated Octopus with honey crispy apple slaw, apple caviar, crispy kombu seaweed and apple broth. That gamble paid off, because it was one of the most enjoyable dishes of the evening. It earned a score of 27.442 (the Joes gave it a 29.203 while the pros, who tend to grade more sternly, gave it a 23.333). In comparison, the salmon earned a 26.092 from the Joes and a 22 from the pros.

Stark's second dish was apple-and-chorizo braised veal cheeks with apple roasted finglering sweet potatoes, apple spinach grits, apple guacamole and bourbon apple reduction (24.744 overall). I would have happily rolled barrels of both the grits and the guac to my car if such a thing were feasible. His third, the highest scoring dish of the night (the pro I sat next to said desserts almost always score higher) was an apple sponge cake with caramel cream cheese icing, apple cinnamon ice cream and a baked apple chip. It racked up a well-deserved 28.433.

Guaman's other dishes were an apple and butternut squash stuffed duck breast (21.906, evidence of how tricky duck can be) and an apple cornmeal pound cake with honey tuile (25.121).

Two quarterfinal rounds remain. On Feb. 16 Chelsi Hogue of Ed's Southern Food & Spirits in Goldsboro battles Curt Shelvey of Curt's Cucina in Southern Pines. On Feb. 17, Spencer Carter of Weathervane in Chapel Hill faces Stark. Winners advance to the semifinals and then the finals March 2. Of course, you can be a winner without all the high-stakes culinary stress—just go eat.

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