10th Annual S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition: Mystery Basket

We take a brief break from Las Vegas to head over to Napa Valley . . .

It’s that time of year again!

Welcome to Day 1 of the finals for the S. Pellegrino Aqua Panna Almost Famous Chef competition.

Last month I had the privilege of being one of the media judges at the New England Regionals Competition. There, we crowned Geoffrey Lanez from Johnson & Wales University in Providence as the champion with his delicious pistachio encrusted pan fried halibut dish.

This past weekend, I traveled to Napa Valley again to witness the winners of each Regionals Competition compete for the coveted National prize of Almost Famous Chef. What’s at stake? $10,000 and an internship with one of the chef judges.

Trust me, this year’s chef judges are an impressive bunch, and I think it would be a privilege to train under any of them.

Additional prizes, each worth $3000, are also given out to the “Fan Favorite” (based on voting from around the world), “People’s Choice” (based on voting of the Signature Dish prepared in Round 2 of the competition), winner of Day 1 “Mystery Basket”, and winner of Day 2 “Signature Dish Competition”.

This post will focus on Day 1: the Mystery Basket Competition

ingredients at the Culinary Institute of America’s kitchen

The Mystery Basket competition reminds me most of TV competitions like Iron Chef.

Contestants have exactly two hours to design, create, and execute eight portions of a dish using the secret ingredients. Of course, they don’t find out about the “Mystery Basket” ingredients until right before they are supposed to start cooking.

Contestants are staggered in 15 minute increments, with the first contestant starting at 9AM.

Once their two hour bell chimes, they have a 15 minute window in which to present to the judges. If they miss the window, they are forced to wait until the very end of the competition, all while trying to keep their food warm and presentable.

I personally think this competition is much more stressful and intense than the Day 2 Signature Dish Competition because contestants have to invent a dish from scratch (on the fly!) and execute it in 2 hours. Unlike their signature dishes, they can only practice so much for this one.

And the mystery basket ingredients this year??

Veal and Black Kale!!!

I think students were quite surprised that the secret ingredient was veal. Several students had very little experience cooking it, and had to use knowledge derived from their experience cooking other meats (which sometimes worked, sometimes did not). Kale is tricky too. Cook it for too long and it becomes mushy. Cook it too short and it’s really, really tough.

Before we get into what the students made, shall I introduce you to our esteemed judges?

Left: Sophie Gayot, a food critic from Gayot, has been a media judge for several years now. Right: Chef Jean Joho from Everest and Paris Club in Chicago. Chef Joho also owns the Eiffel Tower Restaurant in Las Vegas and Brasserie Jo in Boston.

Top left: Chef Eric Ripert from Le Bernardin, Michelin three star and James Beard award winning chef. At right is Chef Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia in Chicago. Some of you may remember he competed on Top Chef Masters a few seasons back. Bottom left: Chef Gary Danko, chef-owner of Michelin one star and Mobile 5-star restaurant Gary Danko. Bottom right: James Beard award winner Chef Michele Richard from D.C.’s Citronelle.

Media Judges: Left: Adam Rapoport of Bon Appetit. Right: Lucy Waverman of The Globe and Mail in Canada.

Left: Susur Lee of LEE restaurant in Toronto (among many others throughout Asia). Right: Jody Adams of Rialto and Trade in Boston. Both Susur Lee and Jody Adams competed on Top Chef Masters during the same season as Tony Mantuano. Susur Lee also tied with Bobby Flay in the Battle of Bacon on Iron Chef America.

*     *     *

So . . . two hours is up! Let’s see what the contestants made!

Daniela Molettieri from the Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec made seared veal shank, purée of potato, chard and shiitake sautée, warm salad, and a basic reduced stock sauce. Daniela told the judges she was aiming for a more medium-rare shank, which she definitely succeeded in doing. One judge wasn’t sure how the tomato fit with the rest of the components.
Paul Terrebonne from Nicholls State University – Chef John Folse Culinary Institute made seared veal round, carrot puree, citrus marinated kale, and veal shallot pan gravy. Paul grew up in the South (Louisiana, to be exact) and has been cooking ever since he was eleven, influenced by both his grandmothers.

Jane Harris from Stratford University made herb-crusted veal, sautéed kale with pepper, and roasted red potato. Jane was originally an alternate competitor at Regionals and only found out a few days before the competition that she was competing! Jane won the Mid-Atlantic regionals competition, bringing her to Napa! Furthermore, Jane is actually studying to be a pastry chef, so she’s really cooking outside of her training here! Judges suggested cutting the meat against the grain and trying to cook it a bit less.
Joseph Johnson from Le Cordon Bleu School of Culinary Arts Los Angeles made sautéed veal with creamed garlic black kale, “farotto” and mushroom veal reduction. “Farroto” is a word that Joseph created, combining the words farro and risotto. He sliced thin medallions from the veal, pounded them, and cooked them well done (though he may have been aiming for medium well).

Jennifer Kim from Kendall College made seared veal top round, black kale chips, sautéed seasonal vegetables, and Parisienne gnocchi. Judges commended her on presenting the food on a hot plate. They also said her meat was a perfect medium rare. Chef Adams really appreciated Jennifer’s good use of herbs.

Helen Hayes from The Culinary Institute of Charleston at Trident Technical College made pan seared veal with sage beurre blanc, sautéed turned root vegetables, and braised kale with crispy shallots. Helen talked about the importance of color in making food beautiful. For her own kids, she has learned how important it is to make food look good to get them to eat it!

Eliakim John Acuna from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Miami made veal stuffed with shiitake mushroom, soy sauce and coconut milk, glazed carrot, and mashed potato. The judges liked the cornmeal crust, which Eliakim used because he could not find breadcrumbs in the Culinary Institute’s kitchen! One judge commented that the potatoes and the sauce sort of overpowered the rest of the dish. Everyone agreed that this was a very creative interpretation of the Mystery Basket ingredients.

Christopher Ravanello from The French Culinary Institute made Provençale veal stew with a side of braised black kale in chicken broth with garlic and olive oil. Chris switched careers to pursue a culinary education after recovering from cancer, realizing that he wanted to do what he loved.

Geoffrey S. Lanez from Johnson & Wales University in Providence made veal roulade stuffed with kale potato cake, carrot puree, and veal au jus. Geoffrey told the judges how he really loved cooking, describing his crazy, rigorous commute (multiple buses and trains!) that he takes from Rhode Island just to put in long hours in a Boston restaurant kitchen every day. Judges wondered whether his carrot puree was a bit too sweet, but were impressed with the lightness of his potato cake.
Daniel Beal from Johnson & Wales University in Denver made braised veal, coconut stewed black kale, apple—soft & hard, and curried parsnip. The judges were really impressed with his overall dish, and commended him on his plating of the elements. One judge suggested cutting the meat into slightly larger pieces, thus ensuring that the meat would be slightly more medium than well done.

And then, it was time for the judges to score.

Who would they pick?

If you were actually there, you’d have to wait a whole day and night until the awards ceremony the following day to find out the winner.

But I’ll tell you right now.

The winner is . . .

Jennifer Kim from Kendall College!!

Let’s look at her gorgeous dish again.
Congratulations Jennifer! The judges were awed by your perfect execution of the veal, wonderful use of herbs, and gorgeous delivery overall.

Great job!

What fantastic talent from everyone!

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