The clock ticked down from an hour and 30 minutes as culinary students crafted pasta dishes using required ingredients saffron, salt cod and broccoli rabe. Earlier that morning, they had another 90-minute deadline to turn pumpkin, delicata squash, goat cheese and speck into appetizers.
In a busy Grand Rapids Community College Secchia Institute for Culinary Arts kitchen, two-person teams of students from GRCC, Mexico, Canada and Scotland put their own unique twists and flavors on gourmet plates of pasta, creating tortellini filled with salt cod in a veracruzana sauce; poached salted cod infused with saffron accompanied by wilted broccoli rabe; and other wonders of gastronomy.
It was a fast-paced race of pasta-making, from flour to noodle. Students squeezed lemons, prepared mushrooms, measured walnuts, set timers and chopped lots of vegetables.
“It is definitely intense and exciting,” said GRCC student Sidney Hyde, who competed in the Nation’s Cup International Culinary Competition with her partner Shaylan Owen last week. Hyde and Owen were working to defend GRCC’s title from 2017, though team Mexico ultimately took home the trophy.
Hyde and Owen were chosen to compete from a pool of 16 culinary students who tried out at the institute.
Though Hyde was nervous at first, once she got into the groove it was a fun test of her skills. “It keep you on your toes,” she said. “It will expose us to stuff we haven’t learned.”
Owen said he felt prepared for the pasta competition. While he’s always had a passion for cooking, he credited GRCC chefs for helping him further develop skills as he pursues a career in the industry.
“A lot of the chefs here have extensive culinary experience outside of the education setting,” he said. “Every chef provides different tips and tricks, things they learned in the industry and in other institutes. We have a really great depth of experience with the chefs here.”
Cooking Under Stress
The competition, which began in 2005, is a biannual event formatted like Iron Chef. It challenges students to put their time- and stress-management skills into action, while still whipping up lots of creativity. Over two days in six rounds, teams plan, cook and, finally, present plates of appetizers, fish/shellfish, game, poultry and desserts. Their dishes are made from “mystery box” ingredients they are given immediately before the cooking begins. They spend 20 minutes shopping from a stock of items for other ingredients.
The chefs-in-training vied for the ultimate prize of the Nation’s Cup, which went to the team with the highest cumulative points from the mystery box rounds. After that, they spent Saturday preparing 100 plates each for the National Dish Dinner and Awards Ceremony.
Coaches and judges came from countries represented at the competition. Judges tasted each dish, offering feedback after each round. Part of the fun was seeing the teams’ cultures shine through in their dishes, chefs said.
Lead Chef Josef Huber, executive corporate chef of Amway Hospitality Corporation, said the students are skilled cooks, and are capable of creating dishes on par with those served in Amway restaurants. Because they have the basics and beyond down pat, he watches the small details and culinary finesse. Often, he said, competitors try to get too fancy and make things look too perfect.
“I’d rather have a good-looking plate with (fewer ingredients),” Huber said. “Instead of 16 steps to make a dish, I’d rather see eight steps that are absolutely perfect — perfectly seasoned, perfectly textured, perfect in color. They have used ingredients well and it comes all together. Sometimes adding things on there actually makes things worse.”
Hyde and Owen’s coach, chef Sasha Ahmed, said it’s a priority for culinary students to be exposed to competitions. A goal is to teach them to work fast, as they will need to do in the industry.
“They are big over-analyzers but they don’t have time to do that with this format.,” she said. “They really have to focus on utilizing the mystery ingredients and making them the star of the plate. Because they are students they really try to focus on proper seasoning, proper cooking techniques — the basics of good cookery.”