Dining Services staff serves up culinary success

Move over, Bobby Flay. New culinary stars have just been born right here in Williamstown.

photo courtesy of Charlotte clark Members of the Dining Services pose with the knives they won as prizes after finishing first in a Nestlé-sponsored culinary competion. The team placed third overall. Team members included Molly O’Brien, Charlotte Clark, James Guiden and Bridget LaValley.

The College’s culinary team, comprised of staff members James Guiden, Charlotte Clark, Bridget LaValley and Molly O’Brien, received a bronze medal at a recent American Culinary Federation seminar and competition. The group competed at Skidmore on Jan. 9 and 10 alongside teams from Cornell, RPI, University at Albany, St. Rose, Capital Region Career and Technical School, Tufts, Rochester Institute of Technology, University of New Hampshire and Skidmore.

Guiden, Clark and LaValley make up the Catering Department at the Faculty House, and O’Brien is the manager at Driscoll Dining Hall. “An e-mail about the competition went out from Executive Chef Mark Thompson. We were interested in participating, and a little later, we formed the team,” Clark said. The four members seemed like natural choices for the team. “All three of us work in the Catering Department every day. It’s the three of us, day in and day out,” said LaValley. “Molly is our fourth wheel, and she helps us to get moving and rolling.”

The first half of the two-day conference titled “Healthy Foods, Sustainable Choices” included workshops and demonstrations about healthy eating and sustainable choices. “We got a chance to tour Skidmore College and see their entire operation,” Guiden said. “That day was really interesting because [Skidmore staff members]  would talk about meatless Mondays, the tandoori oven and student gardens. For us, it was neat to see another school that had all the programs that Williams had. It was interesting to see where Williams stood.”

The competition took place on the second day of the conference. Individual  chefs did not compete against each other, but teams were judged on a 40-point scale in the categories of taste, serving size, use of product and sanitation. Each team received a “market basket” or “mystery basket” of ingredients and were also provided a pantry of produce that included a number of Nestlé products. The chefs only had one hour to create a menu featuring all the mystery ingredients. Teams then had four hours to create four delicious dishes: an appetizer, an entrée, a dessert and a buffet platter.

The team exceeded expectations, given that all four members were first-timers in the realm of cooking competitions. “We didn’t know what to expect,” O’Brien said. “We had a million questions about what equipment to bring, so we brought everything.”

Before the competition, the team members prepared tirelessly. In order to perfect their skills, they made mock menus with mystery ingredients given to them by chefs in Dining Services who are avid fans of the television show, “Chopped.” By the time they left for the competition, they had a foolproof strategy to produce a tasty and creative four-course menu.

The College’s team was the second to compete. Using all the mystery ingredients, the team prepared a chicken and wild mushroom ravioli with pear chutney as an appetizer, pan-seared salmon, sweet potato and yellow turnip hash with roasted garlic brussel sprouts as  the main course, a flourless chocolate cake with a brandy-infused strawberry and chocolate jam as dessert and a braised veal breast with a white bean and roma tomato ragout as a buffet platter. “We tried to think of the menu items by reflecting on what we serve here [at the College],” Guiden said.

“[The competition] was a whole different world than the kitchen cooking experience,” LaValley said. “It’s like when you’re cooking at your place, you’re just doing it and trying to make it look and taste the best. You don’t have to think about every move you’re making. In the competition, it’s the opposite. It’s about precision, and I don’t think we’re used to that cooking style.” Despite her reservations, the team delivered a delectable assortment of dishes and  left with a bronze medal.

The biggest surprise of the day for the College’s team members was when their veal breast won the special challenge sponsored by Nestlé, which asked the teams to incorporate Nestlé products into their dishes. Alan Archer, a chef representing Nestlé, raved that it was “phenomenal” and “the “best dish of the day.” This award was particularly surprising because none of the team members had ever worked with veal before. “My jaw just dropped. I don’t think we expected that,” O’Brien said. “That meant everything. All four of us were ecstatic. It was unbelievable.” As a prize, each team member received a set of chef’s knives.

“I think overall for us, since this was our first competition, the most important thing was the support we got from Dining Services,” Guiden said. “Obviously, without the support from Chef Thompson, [Assistant Director of the Faculty House and Catering] Jeanette Kopczynski, the Faculty House, Catering and [Director of Dining Services] Bob Volpi, we wouldn’t have gone to the tournament. I think that was a key thing to have, the support from them. With any luck, we’ll have the chance to go to another competition as a team and see if we can improve.”