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Left: Team Berkeley's entree - pan-seared salmon on a bed of sweet potatoes. Center: Toqued and stoked, Cal Dining's chefs used every last second in the competition to assemble their winning menu. They describe the dishes they created as "very honest and straightforward, while also elegant." The foursome drew from a variety of flavors, colors, and textures to incorporate the conference themes, Southwestern and Southeast Asian cuisine, in their menu. Right: Roasted asparagus tied into tempting bundles. (All photos, except as noted, courtesy University of Massachusetts - Amherst.)

Campus chefs play 'Beat the Clock'
A big win for Cal Dining at summer culinary competition

| 01 September 2005

Students who patronize Cal Dining's outposts tend to divide into two camps: adventurous eaters who watch the Food Network and those who are just as happy with chicken strips and nachos.

Along with keeping both groups gastronomically satisfied, Cal Dining's four executive chefs have been charged with improving the quality of food on campus. Given their gold-medal-winning performance at this summer's American Culinary Federation's (ACF) competition in Amherst, Mass., there's no reason to doubt their ability to gratify all their constituents.

Berkeley's gold-medal champions (clockwise from top left) Conrad Huth, Chuck Davies, Michael Sarenas, and Ida Shen.(Keith Stevenson photo)
The ACF competition pitted Cal Dining's assistant director and executive chef Chuck Davies, Conrad Huth (Foothill), Michael Sarenas (Café 3), and Ida Shen (Clark Kerr) against 10 other higher-ed chef teams. The Berkeley bunch had not only never cooked together before but weren't particularly well acquainted, since all four chefs were hired just a year ago. What they lacked in collegial familiarity, though, they compensated for in experience. The four of them have worked in many corners of the Bay Area's food world and beyond, including the San Francisco kitchens of Jardinière, Silks, Straits Cafe, and the Hyatt Regency at SFO, as well as stints doing corporate catering and staffing their own dining establishments.

Rules of the game

The afternoon before the competition, the teams were presented with identical mystery baskets containing 11 core ingredients: an Atlantic salmon, a pork loin, a four-pound chicken, a pound of shrimp, a head of red cabbage, four red peppers, a quart of strawberries, three sheets of puff pastry, a head of chicory, a quart of mushrooms, and six Granny Smith apples. From that intriguing mix, they were charged with creating a four-course menu and two buffet items (one hot, one cold).

The teams had to use each ingredient from the basket at least once in their menu, while also incorporating certain classical knife cuts - brunoise, battonet, and julienne, for instance. In addition, the judges required the chefs to write up recipes for each dish (a step competitors on Iron Chef are spared).

Teams also could draw from a storeroom of basics that included oil, spices, rice, flour, and jams and jellies, and were permitted to shop and supplement the core ingredients. The Berkeley team adjourned to a Whole Foods market the night before the competition to shop and brainstorm. Though they had brought some reference books along, Davies says, "All the dishes we created came from our heads."

The team divvied up responsibilities for each dish. "We drew pictures and talked about the general flavor of each course," explains Shen. She says the group met several times before the East Coast trip, deciding beforehand "to keep things fairly simple, but with a classical emphasis."

Assigned the 7:30 a.m. time slot, the Cal chefs soon realized the facilities would be another part of the challenge.

"The accommodations weren't really optimal," explains Davies. "We were cooking on butane burners and there was one sink for four or five teams - that's basically 16 to 20 people working in a fairly small space."

Chicory stems and other must-avoids

Once the competition began, two judges observed the teams, assessing their knife skills and level of organization. "The judges actually commented that we seemed exceptionally focused," says Davies. "We weren't bantering a lot. We were very efficient and worked well together."

Judges awarded points based on various criteria: presentation, nutritional balance, creativity and practicality, flavor, taste, and texture. Other points were given for proper sanitation, organization, culinary and cooking techniques, proper use of ingredients, and timing.

The other chefs made mistakes Berkeley's team was able to avoid, says Huth. Several competitors erred by using chicory stems in their dishes. "Chicory by itself is bitter enough, but the stems are not really edible," he explains.

"You can look at the different courses we created and see that we had something in mind in terms of the progression of flavors," says Huth. "I don't think everyone took that approach. Some of the other teams put cream sauces on everything."

The Cal Dining crew mapped out its menu, beginning with an Asian slaw of red and savoy cabbages and mango, accompanied by a pork-and-shrimp dumpling. "When you start with a spicy dish, you need to follow it with something sweet and creamy to cool down your palate," explains Shen. Accordingly, the Berkeley team's second course was a chilled avocado soup topped with a strawberry salsa cruda.

For the entree course, the Cal chefs made a pan-seared salmon with a bacon/maple vinaigrette accompanied by sautéed chicory, a hash of sweet and yellow potatoes, and a garnish of fried julienned sweet potato. The maple flavor was intended to offset the bitterness of the chicory.

The drama heightened when Davies, in charge of monitoring the time, realized well into the competition that the team had begun to cook later than scheduled. With only 30 minutes remaining, three team members had to complete and plate their dishes while Davies made the dessert, a caramelized-apple and almond galette with a brandy cream sauce.

"I almost blew it for us," admits Davies. "The caramel sauce is fairly complicated because you have to boil sugar. It can be a disaster if it goes wrong, and the sugar actually started to crystallize."

With a crowd looking on in anticipation, the proctor announced 30 seconds remaining for Team Berkeley. Fortunately, Davies managed to salvage the caramel sauce. When the judges tabulated the final points, Cal Dining's chefs not only placed first but were the only team to score enough points to earn gold medals.