10th Annual S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competion (New England Regionals)

>>  Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Last night was a really, really exciting night.

Six extraordinarily talented culinary students, each representing a different local school, competed under intense pressure for the New England Regionals crown at Bunker Hill Community College.

Stakes were huge. The winner would be flown to Napa Valley to represents New England in the Nationals Competition in March. Winner of the  Nationals Competition would receive $10,000 along with a one year paid apprenticeship from one of the chef judges.

Each competitior had exactly 2 hours to prepare and plate a final dish for the judges to try.

This year I got a really special treat.

I got to be one of the judges!

This means I finally had the privilege to taste all of the impressive dishes the competitors made. Can I tell you how hard it is to watch the judges eat year after year when all you can do is take pictures?

I was thrilled.

Here's my recap of the fun evening!

Unlike previous years, the format this year was more like a sit-down dinner. Guests sit at tables and enjoy smaller portions of the same dishes the judges are sampling. A catering team in the kitchen churns out mirror plates of the competition dish based on each student's explicit instructions. Only the judges actually eat the students' creations.

Kitchen Judges stay inside the kitchen and watch the student during the cooking phase. They judge on criteria such as use of proper sanitary practices, speed, time, etc. The kitchen judges are all culinary professors from the participating schools.

Chef Judges are local, well-known chefs. They critique various aspects of the food, such as presentation, flavor,  texture, quality of execution, and more. These guys are really knowledgeable and often give excellent constructive feedback to the students. From left to right, Andy Husbands from Tremont 647 (whose new book just made the #1 spot for grilling books on Amazon - he was thrilled), Chef Raymond Ost of Sandrine's Bistro, and Chef Chris Coombs of Deuxave and dbar.

Matt, the PR man in charge of the competition, chats with Chris Damien, the fourth chef judge.

And then there are the media judges! Media judges judge the personal impact and presence skills of the young chefs. Of course, we also are able to make comments on the dishes themselves! From left to right: Jackie Bruno from NECN, Michael Prerau from The Food Monkey, and me!

This is my spot!

And the view from my judge's seat.

Let's meet the contestants!

The Six

Catherine Deutsch from Bunker Hill Community College was the first person to present (what a nerve wracking position!). She made Magret de Canard, a pan seared Moulard duck breast topped with candied  She paired the duck with roasted butternut squash latkes and frisee salad.

Catherine worked in the mental health field before switching careers. She sees food as a way of enhancing her relationships with others. She shared a story about how in high school, she used to make sandwiches for a boy who helped her with math.

She is currently working as a dessert chef at Menton. Her dishes clearly reflected her love of sugar - from the grapes in the salad to the candied kumquat on the duck, every component was sweet. The judges commended her on her delicious latkes, but also thought her dish was a bit too sweet overall.

Geoffrey S. Lanez of Johnson & Wales University made Seared Halibut with Pistachio crust, Fingerling Potatoes with Chorizo, Braised Fennel, Sautéed Broccoli rabe, Carrot puree, Fried crab cake and Fennel Beurre Blanc. 

Geoffrey is an ambitious young chef with a grand ten-year plan to someday become an ACF Certified Master Chef (there are only 62 in the world!). He seemed quite comfortable in front of a large audience, and made everyone laugh with his comments regarding what he would want his last meal to be - pretzel wrapped hot dogs from Auntie Annie's.

The chef judges noted his ambitious and extensive ingredient list. Comments were generally positive. Judges thought the halibut was perfectly cooked, the crab cakes were delicious, and the overall plate was well seasoned. The least popular part was the carrot puree, which several said was just not nearly smooth and creamy enough.

Sara Cormier is from Southern Maine Community College and made Herb-rubbed Duck Breast with Plum Sauce. The seared duck breast was served with purple and white petite pommes Anna and wilted rainbow chard with bacon and apples.

Sara is originally from Maine, has a keen eye for art, and talked about how color was really important to her. One chef judge commended her on her presentation, saying it was one of the most beautiful plates of the night. Several chef judges said that her duck could have used more searing to render out the fat. When the fat's not rendered, it makes the duck quite chewy, which greatly affects the texture.

Candance Murphy from The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts made Grilled Pork on Sweet Potato Hash, Brussel Sprouts, Smoky Plum Sauce with Herb Sopaipillas. 

Candace works in the high-tech industry and it wasn't until her 25-year old daughter expressed interest in culinary school that she decided to join her daughter! She has a passion for helping others learn how to eat healthy and enjoy food as well, something she learned from her own weight loss journey.

The judges commended Candace on the excellent texture of her pork - soft, tender, just slightly pink in the middle. One judge thought the use of liquid smoke overwhelmed the other flavors of the dish. One commented that the Sopaipilla, though delicious, did not seem to fit with the rest of the meal.

Jonathan DeSoto a Southerner currently attending Newbury College, decided to make Stuffed Bell Pepper with French Fried Frog Legs and Blackened Shrimp Curls. These were served with with candied tomatoes and a citrus-basil aioli.

The kick from the Cajun flavors was great and the frog legs were nicely fried. The biggest critique from the chef judges was his lack of a sauce, both to balance out the strong flavors but also to tie everything together. His explanation? His citrus-basil aioli broke (failed to emulsify) while he was making it and he didn't have enough ingredients to try making it again.
Junyoung Ma was the last contestant of the evening. Junyoung is actually from Korea and is studying at the Southern New Hampshire University. He made Crispy Pork Belly and Stuffed Pork Tenderloin. These were served with a red pepper mixed rice, leek and apple salad, and mashed cauliflower.

Junyoung was funny and "endearing" (as one judged characterized it) during the interview because he seemed to answer "pork belly" for almost every question. It was clearly one of his favorite foods. When asked if he had the opportunity to visit every restaurant in the world, what would he eat? You got it -  pork belly. Of course it was one of his featured entrees.

Judges loved his red pepper mixed rice (which had a nice, spicy Korean-flavored kick to it). Several judges gave feedback on his pork tenderloin, saying that it was overcooked, and thus dry and slightly bland. The flavorful sauce made up for it somewhat, but fundamentally the tenderloin was too tough.

After a nerve-wracking and exhausting two hours, it was finally time to find out the winner.

The judges added up their scores while the students waited, anxiously.
The moment of truth! The winner is . . . .
Geoffrey Lanez from Johnson & Wales University!!!
Geoffrey's dish was incredible. Comments from the judges ranged from "this is perfectly seasoned" to "this dish is good enough to win."

Shall we take a look at that winning dish again?

Congratulations Geoffrey! We can't wait to see how do you at Nationals!!

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