Last year, when I judged Competition Dining’s Fire in the Triad chef challenge, I couldn’t wait to learn the evening’s secret ingredient.

My mind raced, and my mouth watered thinking of the possible local ingredients that could be selected: Old Mill of Guilford grits, Ashley Farms chicken, Goat Lady Dairy cheese, Neese’s sausage. The possibilities were deliciously endless.

So I was a bit startled when the ingredient turned out to be rabbit. Not a big consumer of game meat, I didn’t know what to expect. But save an unfortunate rabbit dessert, I was pleasantly surprised by the delicious, creative dishes.

When I was again asked to serve as a judge at this year’s Fire in the Triad competition, which runs through June 26 at the Empire Room in downtown Greensboro, I figured that odds were I’d be more likely to have grits than game as a secret ingredient.

Of course, I was wrong.

The Competition Dining series began eight years ago in Blowing Rock with the original competition, Fire on the Rock. Founded by Blowing Rock restaurateur Jimmy Crippen, the series pitted local chefs against each other in “Iron Chef”-style culinary battles, featuring a nightly secret ingredient.

Dishes are graded on a scale devised by Go Triad fine dining critic John Batchelor, ranking them from 0 to 5 on the basis of criteria such as aroma, creativity and execution.

The Competition Dining series was built on Fire on the Rock’s success, with competitions popping up in Wilmington (Fire on the Dock), Raleigh (Fire in the Triangle), Greensboro (Fire in the Triad) and later this year, Charlotte (Fire in the City). The Triad competition is in its second year.

Back in the Empire Room, I hung on emcee Crippen’s every word as he introduced the chefs from Winston-Salem’s Noble’s Grille and The Spring House and then made the second-most important announcement of the night: the secret ingredient. Would it be bacon, or maybe strawberries, as another diner at my table guessed?

Nope. It was ostrich.

This is part of the fun of Fire in the Triad. Not only do diners get the chance to sample the culinary skill of area chefs, but they also get the opportunity to step outside their comfort zones and try foods they might not ordinarily eat.

Once the big announcement was made, it was time to eat. The first course — a composed salad featuring ostrich roulade, asparagus, beets and radish with a blueberry gastrique — was served. My fellow diners and I tentatively dug in. As we savored the first bites, we realized we all might be ostrich fans after all.

Each chef makes three dishes, and upon eating each course, diners get the chance to weigh in. Judging is done via smartphone (Competition Dining has its own judging app) or with old-fashioned paper and pen for those without a compatible device.

Five courses later, we arrived at the sixth and final dish of the night. So far, we’d escaped a meat dessert. Then the final dish was announced: devil’s food cake with cast iron cocoa ostrich, milk chocolate Chantilly and strawberry consommé.

The room collectively gasped: the dreaded meat dessert.

But in true Fire in the Triad fashion, this final dish was the biggest surprise of all — a sinfully rich dessert that artfully incorporated thin slivers of ostrich meat in a way that made us all wonder why we’d been so nervous.

Easily one of the best dishes of the night, it sealed victory for Chef John Bobby of Noble’s Grille.

Bellies full and minds opened, we departed with a new appreciation for the caliber of culinary talent in the Triad and a new affinity for some delicious, weird-looking birds.

Contact Jennifer Bringle at jenniferbringle@gmail.com.

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