There were a lot of white coats in the kitchen, even for a culinary school. Student chefs from Dallas, Austin, New Orleans, Nashville and Atlanta worked on their culinary creations as their hovering instructors and well-known chef mentors looked on. They were all bustling about in a busy kitchen at the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Dallas, bumping into media photographers, reporters and other hangers-on.
It might have been a scene from a popular cooking show, but you wouldn’t recognize any of the competitors. You might say these young culinarians are almost famous. And in fact, that’s the name of this match-up: The S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef competition, which pits culinary students from across the country in regional competitions, leading up to a national championship. The events were created by S.Pellegrino in 2002, and are staged by a Portland ad agency.
“San Pellegrino sparkling water has always been associated with fine dining experiences,” said Jake Hanover, program manager with Revelry Agency. “This competition is a great opportunity to engage with young culinary students who will be the chef stars of tomorrow.”
The six competitors had a limited time period to create their signature dish, which was then judged by a panel of well-known professional chefs, who also served as mentors. The professional chefs spent time with the students before the competition began, learned about the entree their charges would prepare, and offered culinary advice in advance of the competition. Also keeping a watchful eye were the students’ teachers. And while winning the competition was on the students’ minds, for the teachers it was all about the learning experience.
Each competitor had a story, from a native Peruvian who recently became a U.S. citizen, to a young woman who became interested in cooking at her grandmother’s side, to a retired Air Force veteran getting started in a new career. All were here to test their skills, learn from the pros, and hopefully, come away a winner.
As the clock ticked away, the tension rose. Mistakes were made. One student’s scallops came off the skillet a little too soon. Her instructor shook his head and grimaced. Another competitor’s work station started out neat and clean, but degenerated into a sloppy mess by the time he was done. Another forgot to plate part of the dish and another miscalculated on portions, spending precious moments re-grouping before time was called. But all succeeded in finishing their signature dishes, beautifully plated for the judges to taste — and then it was judgment time. Each student was brought before the panel and interviewed in front of an audience about their dish and what influences informed their culinary choices. The judges offered compliments to all, but also some very specific and constructive suggestions for each chef.
“As you get more experience, you’ll edit ingredients off your plate,” advised Chef John Tesar, of Knife and Oak in Dallas. “You don’t have to put everything in every dish. Leave it off, and give it to them in the next course.”
Paul Qui of Austin’s Uchi restaurant spoke to the students about finding their culinary passion.
“This is a great opportunity to learn about who you are and what you to cook,” he said. “It’s important to have an idea and seek out your own culinary voice. It’s amazing to find that at this age.”
After the judges sampled all six dishes, they conferred and named the winner: Marcio Velez of Nashville Community College in Tennessee. His signature dish was a unique take on the Southern tradition of “Meat and Three” with a gourmet and ethnic twist. The pork tenderloin had a Jack Daniels and sweet tea glaze, and collard greens were prepared three different ways: in a Peruvian-inspired potato dish stuffed with braised collards and bacon, quinoa with greens, and fried collard greens on top. He was mentored by Michael Fojtasek and Grae Nona from Olamaie in Austin.
“This was a great experience and I’ve learned so much from my mentors and fellow competitors,” said Florez. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re all winners.”
Florez will head to Napa next month for the national competition, where he and four other regional finalists will be vying for $10,000 in prizes, a one year paid internship and the title of the 2016 Almost Famous Chef champion.