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Archive for March, 2010

CCTEC Part 2

The busy kitchen

As time ticked away, all the culinary competitors started getting a little more focused.  I was impressed with how intense, yet relaxed everyone was.  Aside from a few oil splatters and grabbing of hot pans, no one injured themselves.  No fingers were cut, no one tripped over another, and tempers were not as heated as the kitchen itself.  In fact, I saw impressive displays of teamwork.  Nick politely (but firmly) asked Austin if he could borrow the salt off of his station (of course! was the reply).  Barbara noticed Ali was getting a little stressed and advised her to take a few deep breaths.  Breathe in, breath out.  Smile.  Relax for a second, regroup and you’ll get through it.

It was awesome advice.

Alex and Barbara had taken up residence on the other side of the kitchen, since the burners were full and the kitchen was crowded.  I wandered over to that side to see what was up, and both were calmly going back and forth debating on how to finish their respective dishes.  It was interesting to speak with the students as they worked, to talk with them as they figured out how to season this or that, and most importantly, how to deal with setbacks.

I noticed that Nick was working on his sauce.  Something seemed to be wrong, as he seemed to be adjusting his sauce with a dab of chicken stock, perhaps a pinch of salt.

Stephen and Nick chat

He wasn’t entirely happy with how it had come out, so he was tweaking it to make it just right.  Time was getting short, but he was determined to get it right.

Austin also seemed to be having some problems with his sauce.  Although it tasted great and looked silky smooth, it suddenly broke.  The fat separated out and the solids in the sauce clumped up and fell to the bottom.  Time was running out and everyone was working in overdrive.  The kitchen was abuzz with the clanking of pans as they crowded up on limited space.  The pressure was on.

Although Austin attempted to save his sauce, it was too late.  I advised him to toss it, not ideal in a competition, but I told him that it’s important to know when to cut your losses and move on.  He grabbed an empty shallow pan and threw a thick pat of butter in.  It sizzled at the edges and was quickly consumed in a flurry of bubbles.  A few spoonfuls of flour were stirred in, and a quick roux was made.  Several ladles of hot chicken stock were then poured in, and the sauce was brought up to a boil where it quickly thickened into a sauce-like consistency.  A splash of lemon juice, and a seasoning of salt and pepper completed this ultra-fast sauce.

At about this time, everyone was plating up.  Nick was done first, with an attractive looking plate of chicken with vinaigrette sauce (it came out great!) and golden brown potatoes.

Barbara cleaning her workstation

Barbara had also finished her dish.  The herbed rice stuffed chicken breasts were accompanied by green beans that were interspersed with vibrant red strips of bell pepper and crispy bacon.  Lenin finished up his tasty dish of ham and cheese stuffed chicken breasts served over perfectly cooked rice.  Alex’s wonderfully cooked chicken was served on top of ‘al dente’ asparagus and was attractively served with a nod to the fact that one eats first with their eyes.  And although Austin was a little late because of his sauce issue, we were impressed with the juicy stuffed chicken and crispy roasted potato wedges.

It was done.  The intense, but friendly competition was over and everyone seemed to have breathed a collective sigh of relief.  The bakers were also done, and they managed an impressive spread of shortbread cookies, muffins, and a decorated cake.  Everyone performed wonderfully, and I was impressed with the professionalism and attitude of every single person that competed.

Now it was time for us judges to tally up our scores.  We retreated to a back room and started crunching the numbers.  After observing and tasting all the dishes, we assigned numbers to each component of the competition and then added them up.  The results were surprisingly close and we handed them to Chef Jeff.

Alex finishing up his plate

Back out in the kitchen, a crowd had assembled to see the results.  The students looked on nervously, and were given an added level of tension by Chef Jeff who dragged out sharing the results out of patronly pleasure.  It was announced that the top three contestants would win some awesome knives from Just Knives 101 in Williamstown, who very generously donated the prizes. (I’m going to admit a pang of jealously here, because the knives were pretty sweet!)

Third place went to Austin, whose tender chicken and tenacity in finishing even when faced with a major problem right before time expired impressed us.  Second place went to Barbara, whose balanced, delicious dish and positive attitude scored her points with the judges.  Finally, Chef Jeff announced the winner… Alex, who won first place for his clean workstation, tasty preparations, composure under stress, and tight presentation.

It was a great test for the students, and I hope they learned a lot.  I know I did.  I was impressed with everyone at the CCTEC center.  I look forward to the next time I can go, perhaps to judge another competition and to help the next generation of culinary artists achieve greatness.

The crew

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