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When in doubt, a crisp white is the best bet

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A waiter hovered patiently at my shoulder as I tried to make up my mind. It was my first time judging a surprise-ingredient chef cook-off. I had no idea what I would have for dinner. I wanted to be sure I liked the wine.

But how do you order wine when you don't know if the dinner menu will center on Cheerwine or catfish?

The custom of being asked to order wine before food scrambles my brain. It's easier to match my wine selection to the meal than the other way around. Usually I try to stall the waiter, hoping for a chance to peruse the menu and labor over my entrée choice. That wasn't happening tonight. The ballroom was filling up, and my waiter's patience was wearing thin.

The dinner's organizers had offered two suggestions, both made from organically grown grapes, both from winemaker Villa Puccini. I chose the pinot grigio over the Super Tuscan sangiovese-merlot blend and crossed my fingers. I'd be in trouble if we wound up eating six courses of grass-fed bison, but instinct told me white was a safer bet.

The event was Fire on the Dock, a competitive cooking series in Wrightsville Beach, one of four being held around the state this summer. Sponsored by the N.C. Department of Agriculture, the competition aims to spotlight North Carolina-made food and produce. Fire on the Rock in Blowing Rock just wrapped up. Fire in the Triangle starts in June, followed by Fire in the Triad in August. Each series will crown a regional chef winner who walks away with bragging rights and a bright red chef's coat.

The culinary bouts happen in real time. The chefs don't know the secret ingredient until a few hours before the meal. As I was debating my wine choice, the competing cooks were frantically finishing the menus for the six courses that would soon follow. (Organizers can't reveal the upcoming secret ingredients, of course, but if I were a chef slated to compete this summer, I'd be digging around for recipes that use muscadine grapes and wine. They're bound to show up sooner or later.)

Each course must incorporate the surprise ingredient. For us, it was asparagus and strawberries.

Our first course turned out to be an asparagus and lump crab cake on a salad of arugula, roasted beets, bleu cheese and macademia nuts served with a duck fat-strawberry-poppyseed dressing. That's a dish with a lot going on. If anything was going to go well with that, it would be the sort of crisp, unassuming white that I was sipping.

The creations continued in that vein: chicken and asparagus boudin blanc with crayfish mousse ravioli (decent with the pinot grigio). Asparagus and salt-crusted veal loin with truffle asparagus puree and strawberry porcini demi glace (it made me wish I'd gone with the Super Tuscan). Course No. 4 was the wine-match winner: brined, glazed pork tenderloin confit with Moroccan spices, strawberry white-balsamic molasses and creamy shallot polenta—perfect with the pinot grigio. At the end of six courses, the votes of the judges and 100 or so diners had been tallied and chef Andy Hopper of Chefs 105 in Morehead City won the night.

This was my second go-round as a judge. A couple of years ago, the contest sent judges to the restaurants to dine as secret reviewers. No spectacle. No event. Lots of great food, but few surprises. No comfort zones were breached in the awarding of those prizes. We all had plenty of time to deliberate.

I sped home on Interstate 40 the next morning playing the night over in my mind, sorting through the blur of culinary creations, rethinking my own choices as well as the chefs'. It's hard to avoid second-guessing yourself when you judge. One thing I wouldn't change is the wine. When the menu is unpredictable, a crisp white is your best bet every time.

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