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Charlotte chefs go head to head in competition 

Let the hunger games begin

Watch out, Charlotte. Knives are drawn and kitchens are heating up around the city. The Competition Dining Series is back, and there are more opportunities than ever for you to get in on the scene.

Competition Dining presents its third year of contests between some of the best culinary talents in town. Organized by the N.C. Department of Agriculture as part of its "Got To Be NC" campaign, the annual event highlights the diversity of the state's agricultural and culinary resources. The randomized brackets pit pairs of chefs in mystery-ingredient duels for the benefit of diners. Guests then rate each dish to determine the ultimate winner, who will go on to the the battle of champions event at the end of the year.

That event will bring together the Charlotte champs and the winners of similar brackets playing out in the Raleigh Triangle and the Winston-Salem Triad. Our local competition stretches "from Metrolina to the mountains," so we'll have visitors from Asheville and Boone throwing down with local favorites like Clark Barlowe of Heirloom and Chris Coleman of the Asbury.

For each of the first-round matchups, a $55 dollar ticket gets you six courses, three from each of the competing chefs. It's not until the day of the dinner that chefs learn that night's secret ingredients, which could be anything from locally grown produce to locally distilled liquor. For their part, diners won't find out until after the dinner which chef produced which dishes. During the meal, guests use a free app on their phones to rate each course on criteria like appearance, flavor and creativity. A panel of expert judges also cast their votes, but the public's opinion counts for 70 percent of the final scores.

This year, Charlotte's competition receives an added twist. Following surging interest from chefs and diners, organizers have created two separate brackets, meaning 24 chefs will compete in the single-elimination event. This also means that there will be more than 20 opportunities for Joe Public to join the fun.

The list of Queen City culinary challengers — available on the website — comprises a range of styles and experiences. The opening meetup pits the experienced Southminster team, headed by Ryan Forte, against littleSpoon's Miles Payne. While an experienced chef, this is Payne's first foray into competitive cooking. He's betting on the creativity and diversity of ideas among his team as the way to victory. "Being versatile is probably the No. 1 thing," he says. At the same time, he looks forward to the camaraderie among competitors sharing a kitchen.

Chef Aaron Rivera can attest to the collaboration behind the scenes, having competed last year with the Wooden Vine team. This year he's contending on March 31 as chef of his own upcoming restaurant, Tapas 51. Although claiming his experience does not give him an advantage, he's definitely strategizing. "I'm going to keep it very simple, very flavorful and I don't want to overcomplicate it," he says, recognizing the importance of the average diner in the outcome. "I'm going to cook for them, not for myself."

You hear that, dear reader? It's all about you.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated from the print version to reflect a clarification in the final battle of the year.

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