By Samantha Stark
Hundreds of hours in a sweltering kitchen led up to this moment. Surrounded by stainless steel cabinets and appliances, five North Dakota State College of Science culinary students in matching chef’s jackets and toques hastily constructed four dishes in a short 90 minute time period.
A tip of the toque
In early February, the NDSCS chefs in training represented North Dakota in the American Culinary Federation’s 2017 Central Regional Culinary Salon Competition in Chicago, Illinois.
The team included Jared Wick, Joe Brunner, Cassie Witte, Taisyn St. Claire, Lexi Meuchel, Coach Kyle Armitage and two team support specialists, Brooke Thomas and Brittney Harty.
The regional competition consists of nine teams from different states in the Central United States all facing off for a chance to represent their region in the national competition held in Orlando, Florida.
“It’s a pretty intense situation,” Armitage said.
Start the clocks
The North Dakota team was created two years ago by local master chef Eric Watson, co-owner of Mezzaluna, Rustica and Mosaic Foods, with the mission to further the culinary industry in Fargo-Moorhead and surrounding areas.
“He knew that students are a big part of that,” Armitage said. “He was a competitor when he was a student and had become very passionate about it. He saw how the competition teaches beginner chefs confidence, teamwork and practice.”
Watson reached out to NDSCS and Armitage to help start and coach a North Dakota team. With a sponsorship from the Red River Valley Chefs Association, they were able to hold tryouts, construct a team and start training for the competition within months.
“He committed a lot of his time outside of work and away from his family to make sure the team was organized and ready,” Armitage said. “He gave a lot to get it started.”
To compete at the regional level, teams must first win local and state competitions. Since NDSCS’s culinary team is currently the only competitors in North Dakota, the members were able to participate by default. But that didn’t stop them from making sure they were just as prepared as their competitors. The team put in long hours behind the knife and even traveled out of state to Nebraska for practice critiques against other teams.
“This is an extracurricular activity for these guys. They all have jobs. They’re all full-time students, some are even active in other organizations on campus. There is a lot of other stuff going on for all of them. But they all found time to practice. As we got closer to competition, we started practicing all day Saturdays and Sundays,” said Armitage.
‘It’s a dance’
“You put all this time and energy into training and only compete for a little amount of time,” added Wick, the team’s captain.
The regional competition has two phases: skills and cooking. During the skills phase, team members competed in a relay-style format with a total of 80 minutes to complete four skills: fish and meat fabrication, knife cuts and pastry skills.
During the cooking phase, each team had 90 minutes to prepare four pre-assigned dishes: classical fish starter called Filets de Sole Lady Egmont, salad, entrée, dessert and two appropriate side dishes from “Escoffier: The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery.”
“It’s a dance. You’re in a small location. You’re all moving. You’re all doing something different. It turns into this ballet dance of communication,” Armitage said.
‘To the next level’
”Last year’s competition was training” for the team, Wick said. Since it was their first time competing, the team focused on just testing the waters and gathering an understanding of the competition. This year’s focus: confidence.
“We didn’t want to walk in there scared like last year” Wick said, “but confident.”
Becoming confident in their team meant they had to practice even harder, improving their communication and culinary artistry.
“Doing knife skills in our own kitchen for practice compared to that competition room, it felt 10 times harder.” Wick said. “Last year, I shook when I was doing knife skills. This year, it felt really good.”
Designed to raise the standards of culinary excellence and professionalism among students, the cook-off provides an opportunity for learning chefs to have dishes critiqued by master chefs from around the nation.
“It’s like free advice,” Wick said. “The competition is really for people who want to take their culinary skills to the next level.”
Never stop improving
When the team received seventh out of nine, they didn’t dwell on the placing. They saw it as a driver to continue improving.
“When you go to these competitions, you realize how much work you have left. You feel sad because you’ve already put so much time into practicing, but also excited because it means you have room to become an even better chef,” Wick said.
Though four of the five members are graduating this year, the team is planning to recruit new members and compete next year.
“It feels good that we started something,” Wick said. “Hopefully, every class after us will take over and continue to challenge themselves to be better.”
Read the full article online at fargomonthly.com.