Everyone Wants to be a TV Chef

In the kitchen

Everyone wants to be a TV Chef
An awesome responsibility. I was a judge, clipboard in hand, fork at the ready. Sitting in judgment over the skills, the menus, and media demeanor of eight aspiring cooking school students hoping to win the New England title as the next  “Almost Famous Chef. ” A win is a trip to the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley for the nationals, $10,000, stages in Europe, and professional connections up the wazoo (maybe). Losing is a few photos for the school and some nice additions to their knife kit.
Almost Famous a five-hour competition at Cambridge Culinary School in Cambridge. Each student chef cooks a challenging entrée, prepares it from scratch, under time pressure and the gaze of three sets of judges—instructors from the local professional Culinary Schools—who watched over kitchen technique, sanitation etc; four professional chefs—Jody Adams of Rialto and Jay Murray from Grill 23 and two other chefs, one from Newport, RI, and the other from Vermont.  The professional chefs were given a complex 25 -point judging template, with precise guidelines on how to deconstruct each student chef’s dish and professionalism. My task was simpler: rating the chefs on media presence, and the ability to stay on message with the distraction of ten judges, four videographers, several sponsor reps, and a still photographer milling around. No joke: it was one of the most stressful five hours of my life. Here’s why.
Cooking competitively is not an artifact of TV hype. It’s hard work to do, and hard to watch. The chefs––from their forties to their teens, career switchers and green as grass gangly newcomers–are the top students at Cambridge Culinary, Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island, Bunker Hill Community, and New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. They worked hard to get here today, spent days engineering dishes creative enough to show their spark, yet not so dicey as to be impossible to produce under pressure. I ached for “Jenny”, competitor contestant #1, a Korean woman in the US only since 2003. By lottery, she was the first chef to begin. The subsequent competitors came on stream at half-hour intervals so finished dishes could judged hot out of the oven. “Jenny” made a classic herb-crusted rack of lamb with a celery root puree, and asparagus Polonaise. She worked like a demon. Head down, hair back, lipstick on, hyper-focused. Her technique was flawless. Her timing was not. And her communication skills? A recent immigrant, you could hear her formulating her answers word-by-word. The judges cooed over her Polonaise. Most of us had never seen the technique—separating raw egg yolks, freezing them for an hour, and then rolling them in Panko crumbs and a fast deep-fry so that when fork met egg on dish, it was the perfect yolk of a perfect fried egg, a runny simple sauce.  But—the judges found the lamb raw, the plate cold, the dish under-seasoned. Laborious, beautiful, but not up to snuff. Next, another aspiring chef, a refugee from advertising, studying at Cambridge Culinary and working at Blue Ginger. He was media magic, but his dish was too fussy. And horrors! He used lecite powder, a lecithin derivative popularized by Ferran Adria to make the coconut foam. Chef #2 got high marks for grace under pressure, but his oolong-tea smoked scallops were raw and cold, and the chefs couldn’t taste the saffron in the rice cakes.  Next up, a sweetheart chef from Texas studying at NECI, making a beef tenderloin topped with rendered bone marrow. She overcame a kitchen disaster, and did well—but not well enough to win. By 6:00 PM, all eight chefs were working away, while an official with a digital stopwatch barked time codes. The judges had chatted up most of the chefs, wondering why one was using this kind of polenta and not that, worrying that chef #1 wasn’t going to get her lamb into the oven in time.
At 7 PM, we judges sat down. One by one, the chefs presented their dishes. We went to work. Tasting each morsel. Feeling the anxiety.  A serious task undertaken by a serious team, knowing what it would mean to the young chefs to win. I wanted to throw up—not from the food––on the whole pretty good––from the tension. Hopeful faces under crisp white toques.  Two chefs almost tied, but Erik Powers (20), a young man from Everett studying at Bunker Hill is going the Almost Famous Chef Finals in Napa. His meal—a beautifully executed pan seared cod wrapped in pork jowls, (guanciale), came out hot, pretty, and perfectly seasoned. Luckily, his mom was to hand to witness the triumph. The chefs stayed to party on. The judges, totally spent, made a beeline for their cars.

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