>> Sunday, January 20, 2013
This is my third year covering the New England Regionals competition for the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition [check out the past two competitions from 2011 and 2012 here!].
For the past 10 years, San Pellegrino has hosted the Almost Famous Chef competition. Top students from culinary schools around the nation compete against each other - Top Chef style - for a chance to represent their region at Nationals in Napa Valley. The grand prize winner takes home $10,000 as well as a one-year internship with one of the chef judges at nationals.
I've always been impressed by the dedication, skills, and pure determination of these students. They work really really hard preparing for this competition, practicing their dishes countless times together with their chef mentors. I was thrilled to have the honor to see what they would bring. Unlike last year (where I was one of the media judge), this year I sat as a dining guest - sampling the dishes, taking tons of photos, and watching the "show" from the other side of the stage.
For the first time, the competition was held at Le Cordon Bleu Boston (located in in my home city of Cambridge right next to Boston). In the gorgeous space of Technique, Le Cordon Bleu's student-run restaurant, we sampled the contestants' creations while sipping on unlimited amounts of San Pellegrino sparkling water and Aqua Panna still water (along with a nice variety of Italian wines).
The judge lineup was impressive. From left to right: Leah Mennies of Boston Magazine, Nicholas Calias of Brasserie Jo, Steve Aveson of New England Cable News, Raymond Ost of Sandrine's Bistro, Jonathan Soroff of Improper Bostonian, Chris Damian of Legendary Restaurant Group, Naomi Kooker, Food and Wine Journalist and Zagat Editor, and Chris Coombs of Deuxave and Dbar.
Leah Mennies of Boston Magazine and Naomi Kooker, Food and Wine Journalist and Zagat Editor.
For the competition, the culinary students cooked in Le Cordon Bleu's gleaming kitchen. Contestants had exactly two hours to complete ten servings of their "Signature Dish" for the ten judges.
While they prepped and cooked, kitchen judges (instructors from the various culinary schools), watched their techniques and scored them accordingly.
Meanwhile, at the side kitchen, culinary students from Le Cordon Bleu (aka the Cordon Bleu catering team) followed the contestants' recipes to make smaller portions to feed all the guests (like me!). Unlike last year where as a judge I tasted the exact dishes made by the contestants, this year I ate the catering staff's interpretation of the contestants' recipe.
Kris Yang from The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts was the first contestant to present her dish (exactly at 6PM). Kris, who just moved to the US from Korea last year, made Korean Braised Short Ribs and Bibimbap, inspired from her mother's kitchen but tweaked with "upgraded" adaptions. The judges loved her endearing personality and praised the quality of her dish, especially the flavorful and tender shortribs (made in a pressure cooker to save time).
Anthony Glieco from Johnson & Wales University in Providence made Pan Seared Saddle of Lamb. The perfectly cooked lamb came alongside gnocchi made with pâté choux over parsnip puree. Judges praised his gorgeous plating ("reminiscent of Eleven Madison Park) but emphasized that the plate had to be hot. The judges also did not like his use of mustard seeds, which they said were undercooked and bitter.
Jeremy Bergeron from Newbury College made a dish he called "Double the Trouble": Root Beer and Guinness Short Ribs with Popcorn Polenta. The judges were critical of the temperature and seasoning of the food on his plate, arguing that several of the components were cold or undersalted. One judge even came out and bluntly said "overall the concept just didn't really work."
Ethan Altom from New England Culinary Institute made Venison. The poor guy cut his finger about twenty minutes into his two-hour time block. As a result he lost a good chunk of time bandaging up the wound and was forced to be creative about how to adapt his recipe in view of the emergency. For example, he had originally planned on serving the cabbage as a wedge but decided that it would be too hard to assemble with just one hand, so he ended up just chopping all the cabbage instead.
The judges acknowledged his ability to improvise under difficult circumstances, but still had issue with his interpretation of a classic recipe. They thought his sauce was under-seasoned and they disagreed with his decision to remove wine from the original recipe. Similarly to the last several contestants, they were unhappy that the plate was cold.
Ismael Tavares from Southern New Hampshire University made Moroccan spiced lamb. Although his lamb was perfectly cooked, judges felt that the lively exterior seasoning did not penetrate the meat. One judge remarked that the vegetables were overcooked (the fava beans were a tad mushy), and another judge felt that the chanterelles were underseasoned and out of season. Again, judges lamented the fact that the food was served on cold plates. Audrey Carlson from Southern Maine Community College made Pan Fried Lamb Lollipops with a spiced parsnip puree and mango-pineapple yellow curry. She was inspired by Thai flavors and wanted to incorporate the cuisine into her dish. The judges loved her energy and vivacious personality but all agreed that her lamb was undercooked, rendering "rare, chewy" meat whose fat was not rendered. One judge thought that the flavor combination was odd, while another judge thought that the curry overpowered the flavors of the lamb. Kristen Thibeault from Le Cordon Blue College of Culinary Arts Boston (the hosting school!) made Porcini Crusted Vegan “Sweetbreads”. Kristen became a vegan after being diagnosed with (and overcoming!) double cancer in 2008. Her "sweetbreads" are actually made from seitan (wheat gluten), which surprisingly has a texture that really does resemble sweetbreads.
The chefs praised her for how she properly cooked vegetables (something they said they hadn't seem much of that evening), and also commended her for serving the food on a hot plate. They praised her for her use of interesting textures (e.g., fried onion strings, crunchy nuts, raw vegetables), as well as the excellent balance of flavors in her dish.
One chef even told her she had served him something he'd never eaten before, something he would have never expected from being a judge at this contest.
And then it was time to wait.
Host Jake Hanover explained all the rules to the audience, telling us that scores are a combination of points from the kitchen judges, media judges, and chef judges. Kitchen judges look especially at the contestants' cooking and safety techniques as they are making their dishes during those first two hours. Media judges focus on the presence and persona of the contestants, and chef judges hone in on the actual execution of the dishes.
Jake introduced each of the media and chef judges (standing behind him in the picture above).
Jake then thanked and acknowledged the kitchen judges, faculty from each of the participating schools.
And then they asked each of the contestants to come on stage.
This year, for the first time, they added a "People's Choice Award." Diners would vote on their favorite contestant based on "whatever criteria they wanted". This was a category that had existed at Nationals for years, but this was the first time they were awarding it at Regionals.
The winner of the People's Choice Award is . . .
Kristen Thibeault from Le Cordon Blue College of Culinary Arts Boston (left)!
Though it's gratifying to win People's Choice, the contestants are most keen about finding out the actual FINAL winner, who gets to compete at Nationals in Napa Valley.
And the winner is . . .
Kristen Thibeault from Le Cordon Blue College of Culinary Arts Boston AGAIN!!
I had a chance to catch up with Kristen briefly after the contest. She is quite the amazing woman, I must say. She runs her own vegan catering company as well as raises four kids at home (one of whom was just adopted from foster care less than four weeks ago). The timing of the adoption couldn't have come at a crazier time for Kristen, but somehow, she was able to make it work.
Kristen clearly has a ton of determination, drive, and stamina.
I'm thrilled to see how she'll wow the judges at Nationals!
Congrats Kristen, and best of luck at Nationals!