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Food Fighters

Culinary students battle to prove who's on the cutting edge


Published February 20, 2008 at 8:33 a.m.

Nick Hartkorn
  • Nick Hartkorn

It's 11 o'clock, a half hour after the official call time, and only Scott Coles and Mark Greene are ready to compete. "They saw we were coming, man," Coles suggests. "They don't want to fuck with us."

It may sound like the pre-fight bravado at a wrestling match, but these tough guys fight with knives. Coles and Greene are in their final weeks of the B.A. program at the New England Culinary Institute. As a test of their skills, NECI students are encouraged to compete regularly in cooking competitions. But only the best and bravest make it a ritual.

Students are given an ingredient from which they must prepare dishes to be judged by their instructors. Sometimes the ingredient is a mystery, revealed only at the time of competition. But not this Sunday, just before Valentine's Day, when competitors meet in the purchasing department of the Inn at Essex, knowing they will be expected to prepare an aphrodisiacal spread of oyster appetizer and chocolate dessert.

The most glaring difference between this twist on "Iron Chef" and the TV version is that the likes of Chef Masaharu Morimoto aren't judged on safety or personal hygiene; the student combatants, on the other hand, are scored on even the most basic elements of working in a kitchen.

Before competition begins, the head judge, instructor Chef Cathy Long, checks their fingernails. Several men are immediately marked down for an incomplete shave. Coles snacks on shards of chocolate, left over from the handout of each team's allotted 8 ounces, prompting Chef Joshua Gibbs to remind him that they're being judged on sanitation.

Besides the chocolate, the five teams of trainee chefs are each given 10 blue-point oysters and access to practically anything they want in the Inn's kitchens, though they are encouraged to use the ingredients gathered on a cart just outside the massive walk-in freezer. When Coles and Greene ask for the makings of ratatouille, Chef Gibbs tries to dissuade them. "Chefs cook with what they have! Why can't you use what's on the cart?" Those ingredients, he adds, were especially selected because they're in season; if they appropriate other veggies that aren't so fresh, the students will be marked down.

The aforementioned cart is piled high with fresh herbs, spinach, garlic and citrus fruits. Dried herbs and canned products are available in the pantry. Coles and Greene quickly confer, drop their ratatouille plan, and choose a rutabaga and a block of prosciutto, with plans to make a risotto from the rutabaga rather than the standard Arborio rice.

Though it's not among the 10 discrete categories on which the students are judged, cooperation is considered perhaps the highest virtue. Chef Long explains, "Teamwork in the kitchen results in everyone getting a hot and fresh plate. The only way to keep all your guests happy is through good teamwork."

The "team" part proves a stumbling block for Jacob Pilarski. Twenty minutes before he arrived, his partner called and backed out on him. Also a third-year student, Pilarski has never made it to competition with an intact team. Though he'd hoped to have help in what may be his last battle of culinary school, he's optimistic. Gathering root vegetables for his "Lonely Oyster Stew," Pilarski declares he's not nervous: "It's relaxing more than anything."

The only female competitors, Dawn Francis and Loanne Nguyen, are both finishing their Associate's degrees in culinary arts. Nguyen, a petite 19-year-old, considers herself and her teammate veterans of the tournaments: "We've been in four, but we haven't won one yet," she says. "I think it might be our time."

Francis, 31, is a New Orleans native familiar with oysters. "I cook Creole, she cooks Asian," she explains. "We've learned each other's styles now and learned to work both of them into our dishes." Like Coles and Greene, the ladies have come to the event with a set menu. "We kind of brainstormed away," continues Francis. "You can come in with as many ideas as you want, but something is always going to happen. It always changes."

After a brief reminder of the rules, Chef Long - wearing a festive necklace spelling the words "HUG" and "KISS" over her chef's whites - sends the cheflings to clean their stations and begin cooking. They've got just 90 minutes in which to ready their wares.

Meanwhile, Chef Gibbs makes his rounds of the two kitchens in which the students work. (Since this is Sunday, the one on the upper floor is bustling with the restaurant's brunch prep, leaving room for only three of the five teams.) At Francis and Nguyen's station, Gibbs immediately makes a note: "Lo is handling oysters with bare hands. That will be points deducted if it's not cooked." No worries - the team's dish is a "Trio of Oysters (Smoked, Fried and Grilled), with Three Different Butter Sauces."

Downstairs, Greene and Coles are starting with their dessert, a "Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake with Blood Orange-Grand Marnier Sauce." Spotting their oysters on ice in a bucket in the sink, Gibbs asks why they're not refrigerated. He's surprised to see such cavalier treatment of the delicate ingredient - particularly since Coles recently finished his NECI-mandated internship in New Orleans, where he worked with oysters every day. The chef concludes that the experienced two probably know what they're doing, but says he'll keep an eye on the temperature in the bucket, just in case.

Halfway through the competition, Long is pleased with all the teams' progress. Most food prep can be done in the first 45 minutes, she says, leaving the rest for frills such as presentation: "We have lots of different plates. They should take the time to choose something pretty," Long says. "Make sure they're not chipped. Warm them - this crew, about half of them will forget."

Gibbs has an early favorite: Pilarski and his "Hot Chocolate and Trio of Chocolate Cups." "Jacob tempered the chocolate correctly," he explains. "He raised and lowered the heat at the right times to the right levels. If he didn't do that, his cups would get brittle and probably crack."

Downstairs, dessert is not coming as easily. Coles and Greene have studied pastry and know a soufflé cake must be prepared in a water bath - but Gibbs observes that theirs is ice-cold. "It will take forever to heat up," he moans. At the adjacent station, Nick Hartkorn and Charlie Gruss, working on their own version of the same dish, have forgotten the water bath altogether.

By two o'clock, the seasoned chefs are gathering in the purchasing office, where the table has been set with glassware and enough utensils for each of the judges to use a fresh set with each dish. (With five teams competing, that's 30 forks.) Chefs Long and Gibbs are joined by Long's husband, David, a former pastry chef; David Glickman, who crafts serving boards for celebrity chef Daniel Boulud; Jeanette Stevens, one of the Inn's executive pastry chefs; and Chef Louise Duhamel, the elegant Québecoise instructor of NECI's course in A.M. Production (that's breakfast to you and me).

The chefs are all taken with Gruss and Hartkorn's raw oysters with lemon, lime and blood-orange ice - in theory. Gibbs is impressed that Hartkorn reduced the juice before freezing, but Duhamel complains that the ice is already melting, leaving the oyster soggy. Chef Stevens points out that, while observing the pair, she tripped over their compost - points off for safety. Nonetheless, all the chefs pronounce both the oyster dish and the team's fallen chocolate cake enormously saleable - one of the most important qualities from a judge's point of view.

Next up are Francis and Nguyen's dishes. Though Chef Duhamel comments that they used the wrong plates, the presentation seems balanced and pretty, if stark. Points are added for the team's heart-shaped meringue cookie (in tribute to the holiday theme), which joins a chili hot chocolate and a beignet. That last item disappears after only two tasters. Of the team's oysters prepared three ways, Gibbs says: "They really hit it on degree of difficulty."

The last three teams' meals come out at once. Devin Miller and Hans Baang had trouble formulating their ideas, and each prepared his own course. The chefs opine that both plates fail to showcase their main ingredients. Baang's chocolate truffle tart is overwhelmed by a mountain of whipped cream, while Miller's fried oysters disappear beside a gargantuan ring of out-of-season fruits and veggies.

Gibbs is pleased to taste Pilarski's dish, noting, "I love the way he worked. He was calm and had everything in the kitchen." He enjoys the student's bitter hot chocolate, but is somewhat nonplussed by the "Lonely Oyster Stew": "Is there cheese in this? Or is it just really reduced?"

For all Coles and Greene's earlier bravado, the chefs aren't too enthused by the product of the duo's labor. Despite their background in pastry, their "fallen" chocolate soufflé is brittle, not molten. "Not very chocolatey, either," adds Duhamel. "Very disappointed with these two."

It's time for the moment of truth. A table in the Inn's lobby displays each team's dishes, which they cooked in duplicate, one for the tasters and one for the public. (Passersby can look but not taste.) Coles and Greene stand confidently with their arms crossed. Chef Long calls Jacob Pilarski and gives him the third-place medal: He earned 554.5 points out of a possible 600. Gruss and Hartkorn take second with 563 points. With a score of 570 points, Francis and Nguyen take top honors. Elated, they stop hugging just long enough to collect their medals. Nguyen squeals, "We are shocked! We thought that we did terrible! When we didn't place third, I was sure we didn't place at all."

"We've been disappointed every time, but we keep going at it," Francis interjects. "Knowing how we both work, that's key."

Chef Long agrees. Though "Iron Chef" may suggest that cooking contests are tough-guy showdowns, she believes it's all about working well with others. "Communication was excellent," she says of the winners. "Last time they were very stressed about winning. This time they relaxed and just cooked."

Relaxed or not, the contestants can't rest on their laurels. Post-battle, Chef Stevens slips Coles some info on how to contact prestigious Las Vegas kitchens. For these young cooks, who will soon start clawing their way up from the crowded sous-chef ranks to that of Chefs de Cuisine and perhaps even Executive Chef, the competition never ends.