Student ‘Iron Chefs’ wage sizzling culinary war

As the clock ticks closer to 6 p.m., a flurry of activity besets the kitchen as 20 chefs weave in and out, scurrying to plate their dishes. At last, time is called, and three chefs step forward with platters of delicately wrapped eggplants, ringed with mozzarella-stuffed tomatoes and placed on a bed of thick tomato sauce. The dishes are presented to three judges seated at one corner, who all discuss the food in hushed tones. The room is silent as the whole kitchen waits with bated breath to hear the judges’ verdict.
This may sound like a scene from a professional cooking competition, but it was actually unfolding in the Dodd Dining Hall kitchen during the final round of Iron Chef Williams last Friday.

Over the past four weeks, 20 students, in groups of five, took culinary courses with Dining Services staff as part of a multi-week program. The program was inspired by the popular TV show Iron Chef as part of Campus Life’s Real World Programming series organized to teach students skills that will be useful upon graduating from Williams.

“The program was very, very helpful,” participant Shayla Williams ’09 said. “The Dining Services people were very nice to work with and helped us a great deal. They taught us a lot of basic skills for cooking that I had never really learned.”

Mark Thompson, executive chef of Dining Services, explained that the participants’ training had begun with basic issues such as sanitation and knife skills, before moving on to meat cuts, sauces, stir-fry and grilling techniques and finally winding down with plating and menu advice. While some students came with limited culinary experience, Thompson said, “The enthusiasm was incredible. They really surprised us – some of these students, I think we should sign them up!”

The culmination of the students’ culinary endeavor resulted in a final competition where students were given an assortment of mystery ingredients and three hours in which to prepare a two-course meal. Each team had five minutes to look through cookbooks and decide what dishes to make with the given ingredients, which included chicken breasts, salmon, eggplants, asparagus, peppers, spinach, tomatoes and mushrooms. A Dining Services Chef was assigned to advise each team during the cooking process.

“At the competition, it was myself and my four frosh working together,” Williams said. “We had a lot of fun coming up with the menu, looking through cookbooks and magazines. We were the only team who didn’t have a chef, so it was very interesting. We found recipes here and there, but for everything else we just winged it.”

At the end of the allotted time, each team presented their dishes before a panel of three judges, including Nancy Thomas, co-owner of Mezze Inc., Chris Abayasinghe, assistant director of Dining Services and Marisa Cabrera ’07, a food enthusiast. Each team was judged for the flavor profiles of their dishes, their cooking technique and their overall presentation.
“When it came time for us to be called to judge the competition, we were looking for a combination of taste, presentation, creativity and blend,” Abayasinghe said. “Students have a certain culinary taste profile, and they had to use that to help them determine what to use. Our focus was to have students be as creative as possible while maintaining the taste profile for the newest dining trends available.”

The judges’ final decision was unanimous, awarding first place to Team Dennett 3, composed of Williams, Laura Staugaitis ’11, Nancy Dong ’11, Geoff Rodriguez ’11 and Susannah Eckman ’11. The team’s winning menu consisted of chilled salmon, asparagus and cucumber salad with a light herb dressing and a sweet and spicy grilled chicken breast with apple-mango chutney on a bed of vegetable rice.

“I think [Dennett 3] did a better job of complementing the flavors, especially with their salmon salad. Their presentation was also great. Overall they just did the best job of blending the flavors and using the seasonings really well,” Cabrera said.

For their efforts, the team members received cookbooks from Chef Molly O’Brien, and were awarded the opportunity to design a dinner menu for Greylock Dining Hall. The winning participants’ names were engraved on a trophy for the Iron Chef competition.

“It was an exciting opportunity to combine student creativity with staff expertise, and to get a behind-the-scenes view of the cooking world. The victory was especially rewarding for us because it was an entry team,” Staugaitis said.

Although there was only one winning team, every student walked out of the competition with useful knowledge. “We’re very happy we were able to participate in Iron Chef Williams,” Julianne Feder ’10 said. “It’s great that the school can put on something like this. I think the amount of guidance and care we received from Dining Services, especially Chef Mark [Thompson] and Chef Dan [Levering, first cook of Dodd Dining Hall], shows how much Dining Services cares about us students.”

Not only did the students impress themselves with the culinary skills they picked up from the program, but the judges were equally astonished by the students’ talent. “As an alum who’s trying to steer clear of Lean Cuisine, let me tell you, those cooking skills are going to be really useful someday,” Cabrera said.

For many students after graduation, it’s easy to fall into the trap of alternating boxed dinners each night. They can no longer depend on the culinary delights of dining hall chefs or doting parents, and eating out at restaurants is just too expensive for a daily habit. However, with the help of the Iron Chef Williams competition, at least there will be 20 students who won’t be subsisting on Ramen and mac and cheese.