Last night, for the second time in my life, I got to witness something extraordinary.
Eight young culinary students, top students at their own respective schools, came together to compete for the coveted prize of New England Regionals winner at the 9th Annual S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition.
Stakes were huge. The winner would be flown to Napa Valley to represents New England in the Nationals Competition in March. Winner of the Nationals Competition gets $20,000 along with a one year paid apprenticeship from one of the chef judges.
Competitors had only 2 hours to prepare and plate a final dish for the judges to try. The creativity and skills of these young chefs does not cease to amaze me. At an age where most students are trying to figure out how to boil pasta and live on their own, these students are already churning out sous vide meats, homemade gnocchi, and foams. Incredible.
Join with me as I take you on a brief tour of all the dishes that were made and a description of the night's activities, including a brief interview with the winner. 🙂
Cooking began promptly at 3PM for the first contestant. Contestants were staggered by 15 minute intervals, which meant presentations to the judges began at 5PM and continued every 15 minutes until around 7PM.
Our Esteemed Judges!
Top: Michael Prerau of The Food Monkey, Nick Altschuller of the Improper Bostonian, Mary Dumont from Harvest, and Benjamin Knack from The Lanam Club.
For you TV junkies, Mary Dumont competed on The Next Iron Chef this past fall, and Benjamin Knack was one of the four finalists in Hell's Kitchen this past summer.
Middle: Christopher Coombs from Deuxave and Dbar, Chris Douglass from the Ashmont Grill and Tavolo (previous chef-owner of the place where Bryan and I had our first date! ), and Alan Archer from Nestles International.
Bottom Left: writer and editor Louisa Kasdon
Toni Elka (bottom right) from Future Chefs was not a judge, but spoke briefly at the event about her organization, Future Chefs, which provides Boston area youths educational and training opportunities in the culinary arts.
There were also several "Kitchen Judges," mentors and teachers of the students who competed here tonight. Here you can see several of them, taking bites out of a contestant's dish.
Alas, traffic from Cambridge to Bunker Hill Community College was horrendous (took me an hour to travel about 3 miles), and thus I missed the first several contestants. Nevertheless, I was able to snap a few photos of the remaining chefs in action, and I still managed to photograph all of their food!
Meet the contestants!
Michael Pavloski from The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts was the first contestant out. Check out his cute Individual Quail Pot Pies. I really liked the rustic presentation of his dish. It stood out because it looked so different from everyone else's dish.
Elizabeth Agneta from Bunker Hill Community College made Salmon en Croute. Isn't that such beautiful and exquisite plating?
Anthony J. Messina from the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts made Squab, Parsnip, Chard, Ras el Hanout, and Pistachio. Though I missed Anthony's presentation, it's hard not to be impressed by the level of detail and thinking that clearly went into designing this dish! Sous vide squab, a foam, parsnip puree, and even the little perfect cubes with the pomegranate seeds.
John T. O'Connell Jr. from Johnson & Wales University made a Lamb Saddle with Hickory Smoked Salt and Root Vegetable Flan. I missed this one as well. I would have loved to try that vegetable root flan!
Adam P. Monette of New England Culinary Institute made Crispy Skin Trout with Braised Fennel and Lentils. He was presenting when I finally arrived at the event. Overall, they seemed to like the seasoning and flavors of the dish.
Joshua J. Ogrdowski from Johnson & Wales Unviersity made Prosciutto-Wrapped Scallops with Mushroom Ravioli and Lobster Ragout. I actually had a chance to watch Josh in the kitchen. He was surprisingly calm despite the time pressure and the complexity of his dish. One judge gave constructive feedback about the scallops, suggesting that he consider searing them more to bring out even more flavors.
Patricia A. Whalen from Johnson & Wales University made Proscuitto Wrapper Statler Chicken Breast along with a gorgeous tart filled with asparagus and mushrooms. They commended her on her chicken, which was juicy and perfectly done. One judge mentioned that her tart looked a little underdone (not "GBD - golden, brown, and delicious"), and also asked why she used such out of season vegetables. Another remarked that her dish seemed under-seasoned, and wondered whether she'd had a chance to taste her dish.
Joseph Garrity from New England Culinary Institute made the most beautiful hand rolled gnocchi. I watched him painstakingly roll out the individual grooves in the gnocchi (secretly wishing I could have a taste of that gnocchi!). One judge gave feedback about the skin, saying that it had to be really crispy on the fish, otherwise the texture is rubbery and not very pleasant. Overall, though, the judges were very impressed with his combination of flavors and thought the dish, as a whole, was very well executed.
And then, we waited . . .
Matt tabulating all the votes - will it be close?
Matt disclosing the results to the judges.
"Gather around! We are about to announce the winner!"
And the winner is . . . . .
Anthony J. Messina from the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts!!! Congrats Tony!!
I had a brief chance to talk to Tony after the competition. Tony is a true Bostonian, born and raised in East Boston. He can turn on and off his Boston accent like that - it's quite funny and endearing at the same time. He tries to turn it off when he's out at events like this, but if he's not careful, it creeps back in!
"I pahked my cah in Hahvahd Yahd . . ."
He told me he practiced the dish three times before coming to the competition. Seeing that many of the contestants struggled with time, I asked Tony whether it took a lot of practice to be able to execute his dish in under 2 hours. He replied saying that, even the first time he practiced, he was already able to execute in under 2 hours.
Guess we have a natural here!
Here's to wishing Tony the best of luck at Nationals! I would love to see a local (he goes to school in Cambridge!!!!) win the entire competition.
Thanks so much to the folks at S. Pellegrino for giving me the chance to attend this event!
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