We had come to the competition in search of culinary excellence, and that is what we found.
It just wasn’t necessarily our own.
For sure, our team of student chefs from Manchester Community College proved to be pretty good at the American Culinary Federation’s Northeast Regional Competition in Columbus, Ohio, last week. We came home with a bronze medal as earlier MCC teams had done in the two previous years.
But our performance, no matter how gratifying, was less of a prize than the awakening we got from our competitors, who showed us how much better we could be.
Ultimately, when the burners were off and the plates were on the table, it was the team from the Culinary Institute of America, perhaps the nation’s most prestigious culinary school, that won the day. They will move on to the nationals in Dallas this summer.
Students from Johnson & Wales University, another top culinary school in Providence, R.I., finished a very close second.
We got to compare ourselves to them.
As anyone who regularly watches Top Chef, Iron Chef America or half a dozen other cooking shows knows, culinary competition is very intense. It is a test of creativity, calm under pressure, knowledge of ingredients, and discipline of hand and mind. The ACF’s Northeast Regionals are no exception.
Our competition – sanctioned and accredited by the national chef’s organization – took place over two days at the kitchens of Columbus State Community College. It was designed to test not only the teams’ skills at handling a knife and a skillet, but their ability to design a quality menu and execute it on time.
This year’s MCC team was made up of student cooks Joseph F. Mott of Glastonbury, Amanda Carrier of West Hartford, Anthony Martorelli of Meriden, Daniel Foley of Enfield and me – all Chef Marc Hussey’s students in an advanced cooking class called Classical Cuisine.
We got to Columbus in a rented RV driven by culinary instructor Carl Stafford of Manchester, the team’s “roadie.” Instructor Chef Sandra Jenkins, from Tolland, and pastry expert Jennifer Sherman-Murdock, West Hartford, also made the trip as advisors.
Eight teams from Vermont to West Virginia arrived to participate. There is a camaraderie we share when not trying to out-do each other.
The competition itself is divided into three sections, all of which contribute to a final score.
The cold platter or garde manger tests the cooks’ aesthetic and design capabilities in addition to their understanding of good food. We worked through a Sunday night and into Monday morning to trim, cook and lay out a smoked sturgeon buffet platter and accompanying vegetables -- all of which was covered in aspic to become a culinary showpiece. Eight competing teams presented their platters to the judges on Monday afternoon.
The CIA team’s winning piece was a masterpiece of culinary art, complete with high-intensity lighting and a scrolling iPad menu. It no doubt represented weeks of classroom practice and design. Despite our coach’s best efforts, our platter revealed to us (and the judges) our relative inexperience at the form.
Tuesday morning, after a few hours of recovery sleep, we had to demonstrate our fundamental cooking skills. While our team alternate, Foley, assisted, the four other members had 80 minutes among them in a relay to correctly butcher a chicken; fillet a fish; julienne, dice, tourné and concassé a collection of vegetables; roll out and prepare a pastry dough for baking, make a pastry cream and segment and zest an orange.
Even after weeks of practice in class, it is a nerve-wracking exercise, since every wrong knife stroke can reduce the work quality and cost valuable time. First-time competitors watch with knots in their stomachs as they await their turns. The judges – some of culinary Olympic caliber -- walk the floor with clipboards as the work unfolds, then return to deliver a team evaluation afterward.
For the first time in its history, our MCC team finished without any penalty points for going overtime.
About an hour later the team cooking competition began. Each team must interpret a classical dish first created by Auguste Escoffier, the father of classical cuisine. This year’s assignment was Poulet a la Catalane, a chicken and sausage dish in a classic brown sauce called an Espagnole. Each team also must prepare original accompaniments of appetizer, salad and dessert.
We had six burners, one oven, two electrical outlets, 30 square feet of table space and 90 minutes to produce our four-course gourmet meal. The time seemed to flash by as we performed our carefully rehearsed routine. When done correctly, it is a five-person dance of chopping, sautéing, mixing and half a dozen other processes. We managed ours within the prescribed time and without any serious mishaps.
The result was as good a meal as we have ever prepared. It left us proud, a little spent and satisfied… at least until we saw what the winners had come up with.
We spent the ride home talking about what we could do to improve next year.