Allez Cuisine!: UT students compete in their own Iron ChefWritten by Amy Campbell | | firstname.lastname@example.org
I watch every competitive cooking show I can find, but I still wonder at the fact that they exist at all – and perhaps more to the point that cooks, from pros to “The Worst Cooks in America,” clamor to participate. My own kitchen abilities have come a long way over the last couple of years, but I’m quite sure that putting them to work in a contest setting would give me PTCD – Post Traumatic Cooking Disorder – for months to come.
That’s why I was so impressed with the students participating in the University of Toledo’s Iron Chef Competition last week. Five teams of students from the University’s Living Learning Communities competed as part of Crib Notes: A First Year Experience Program of Shared Passions, which offers informal, interactive programs and discussions in the residence halls. I was lucky enough to be a member of the judging panel for the event, which was a great fit for my primary culinary skill, eating.
The Living Learning Communities (LLCs) are made up of students who share similar interests. Some groups are directly tied to a program of study such as Engineering and Politics, while others are connected by a common theme such as multiculturalism or the arts. As members of an LLC students have the opportunity to live with others who share their interests, interact with professors outside of the classroom and attend special programs related to their community’s theme.
The contest rules were similar to those on the Iron Chef TV show: the teams – made up of three students, an advisor and a chef from one of the UT dining venues – had one hour to make a savory dish featuring the “secret ingredient,” which was announced with a flourish and turned out to be potatoes. There were seven varieties available, and the teams rushed to the altar to claim their favorites, along with hotel pans of additional, predetermined ingredients that served as the pantry.
For the next hour the students sliced, diced and sautéed, with their chefs standing by to offer guidance. At least two of the teams got professional instruction on how to dice an onion in a hurry; another seemed to have missed that lesson, and I feared for the chopper’s fingers.
During the cooking hour, a couple of other extraordinary things were going on, most notably, dinner. The competition started at 4 p.m. and the dining hall was open for business despite the contest. Dining hall employees not only staffed their stations and served dinner as teams worked on either side of them, they didn’t give the least indication that the situation was even unusual, let alone nerve wracking or inconvenient. I can’t even make small talk while I’m cooking. Kudos to the hungry student-patrons, too, who were very patient with judges and photographers getting in the way of their dinner.
Meanwhile, UT chef Shawn Simpson was something of a toque-clad superhero, running between the team he was advising and the cooking demo he was giving in the dining room. He showed no signs of stress, either, even when yours truly started asking cooking questions. His lobster mac & cheese with ancho chili was delicious. I overheard one judge say to another, “That’s the best thing you’ll have all night.”
When the hour was up, teams presented their creations to judges who ranged from…well, me, to area chefs, UT administrators and Toledo Mayor Mike Bell. We were offered two soups, double stuffed redskin potato cups, potato and ground beef hash and a vegetarian option, potato pancakes with fresh salsa. It was a starch-stravaganza, with bacon featured prominently as well. Double-stuffed potato cups? Stuffed with ground beef and bacon, of course. The potato pancakes, a great idea if not the best dish, was the only bacon-free offering.
All the teams made a good showing, especially considering the long-cooking secret ingredient, but in the end it was Team Orange, from the Multicultural Leadership & Service LLC, that took first place with its double-stuffed redskin potato cups. The Orange Team’s dish was deemed the best, but the hit of the evening was the award it received: a gleaming gold trophy, topped with Mr. Potato Head