Boy, can those knife-wielding teens whip up a mean meal.
Saturday, NAIT’s kitchen labs hosted a day of excitement, anticipation and phenomenal food.
The Canadian Culinary Federation Edmonton Branch held their 11th annual High School Culinary Challenge, a competition that gives young, aspiring chefs an opportunity to start building a successful career.
In total, 15 teams of high school students across the region faced off against one another to cook a full three course dinner.
It included a soup course of minestrone and an entrée of roast pork tenderloin served with spaetzle, beans almondine and carrots battonet. A decadent lemon curd dessert completed the challenge.
Students had a tight timeline of four hours to prepare and present the dishes to a group of guest judges that included two St. Albert homegrown Red Seal chefs: Lindsay Porter and Peter Keith.
“This is life experience. It really was for me when I took the challenge in 2008,” said Keith. “When you take the challenge what seems impossible becomes possible. You start in Sept. or Oct. to look at the menu and with good time management, goal reflection and pushing yourself, you find a way to become a good chef,” said Keith.
He added, “You learn what food is all about. Food is so much about emotion and creating a menu, and if you learn to do that in high school, you have an incredible career as a chef.”
St. Albert school participation
St. Albert high schools sent two groups. Team Paul Kane was composed of Brandon Elias, Joseph Fletcher and Abi Larson while Team St. Albert Catholic High included David Howes, Marc Odiaz and Ivy Mayordomo.
Teams dressed in chef’s whites went off to collect ingredients supplied by organizers. Fresh meat, vegetables, spices and dry ingredients were hastily collected from bins, boxes and fridges.
Soon the room was in full flow with a thunk-thunk chopping sound of veggies being prepped for the minestrone.
Over at the Paul Kane Team, Abi arranges a Kitchen-Aid mixer, immersion blender, ice cream maker and assorted tools on her table. She’s in charge of dessert.
Joseph, who makes perfect cuts, chops carrots for the minestrone while Brandon, who by default of five years of professional cooking experience, is team leader. He assists Joseph with the soup course working at a moderate pace all the while telling jokes to assuage the team’s initial nervousness.
Across the room at the SACHS station, the team is fiercely focused.
“There are some loud groups, but we are definitely one of the quieter ones,” says David, peeling a clove of garlic. He chops it into a bowl containing bread crumbs, dried currants, egg, olive oil, salt and cayenne pepper – ingredients for pork stuffing.
Meanwhile Marc gingerly chops vegetables as Ivy separates 18 egg yolks from the whites for a raspberry lemon custard.
Her challenge is the heat. Custard burns easily and the stoves in the lab are six-burner Garland gas stoves. At SACHS she’s only practised on electric stoves and heat regulates differently – a variation that can create a disaster as opposed to a delicacy.
Yet Ivy remains remarkably calm.
“I’ve used that kind of (gas) stove in the Philippines and I’m OK,” she said while whisking the egg yolks.
Several menu ingredients are measured in grams, and all stations are provided with a compact electronic scale.
“It’s (scale) also more accurate,” David explains.
Back at the Paul Kane station, Joseph flourishes his knife like a pro slicing and dicing vegetables like butter.
“I put a steel to it once a week and bring it in to a professional sharpener every two months,” Joseph says. Decidedly proud of the shiny blade, he points to an inscription with his name on it.
“It was a Christmas present from my sister,” he smiles.
As he speaks, Abi rolls out pastry dough that fills a round of English muffin tins.
Just then St. Albert chef and president of the Canadian Culinary Federation Edmonton Branch, Stanley Townsend strolls by, grinning and waving his arms. His excitement is contagious.
“They (students) organize. They work so methodically. Most culinary shows are about individuals, but this is team based. They’re constantly confirming with each other. Our wish is to bring that level of competence up, and so far it’s been a success,” said Townsend.
He notes teenagers of this era are “technically savvy. They watch cooking shows. They do their own research and have been preparing their own food since they were five years old.”
It’s 2:15 p.m. and at 3 p.m., each station must present their minestrone. The pressure is on and scrambling replaces Paul Kane’s light-hearted humour.
“We’re a little behind for a couple of things, but we’re playing catch-up. We still have 45 minutes,” says Brandon, explaining they’ve overcooked the tart shells, and a fresh batch is popped in the oven.
“Luckily we always make extra dough so if something goes wrong, we can fix it.”
Brandon stuffs his pork tenderloin and ties it with string.
“I’m going to sauté it with salt and pepper to give it a nice brown crust before I put it in the oven for 11 to 12 minutes.”
At the SACHS stove, Ivy is appointed the minestrone’s “taste connoisseur” and gamely tastes a spoonful before adding a pinch of salt. She then quickly folds a napkin into a lotus blossom, and spreads it on a plate.
The call to present sounds and Marc spoons colourful veggies swimming in broth into a bowl and lays it on the lotus blossom napkin. With great care the team walks into the judging room.
Three judges immediately sample the minestrone. Playing into the score is taste, texture and presentation.
They type in scores and add comments that are electronically emailed to schools. Throughout the challenge, instructor David Whitaker hops from station to station taking photos – images also emailed to schools.
Back in the labs, reality sets in and the level of noise ratchets up. Clouds of steam rise from stoves, pots clank, blenders whir and the pace is decidedly more frenzied.
Around the Paul Kane table, Brandon and Joseph strain the doughy spaetzle, boil and sauté it to a golden brown, while the tenderloin bakes. It’s a frustrating two-man job.
An equal amount of edginess is visible at the SACHS station. David cuts the string from the tenderloin and slices it. Some of the stuffing slips out and he gently taps it back. Marc joins the table and adds carrots and beans, but the spaetzle is missing.
“We didn’t have enough time. It sat in the fridge and we forgot about it. We tried it a couple of times in practice, but it didn’t go as well as we expected,” says David, clearly disappointed.
Despite any glitches, the teams push egos aside and step up like pros to complete the final course. Ivy pours a lemon custard into a baked tart shell and spreads fluffy meringue on it.
Taking a pastry blowtorch, she gives the meringue a golden touch. Selecting several perfectly shaped strawberries, she slices them and forms a flower on top of the meringue. The finishing touch is a mini hill of raspberries lightly sprinkled with icing sugar.
Standing at the Paul Kane station, Abi fills her tart shells with custard and meringue. Delicately she sticks milk chocolate and white chocolate filigrees in the meringue.
There’s a moment of panic as the upright filigree falls over. After stashing them in the freezer to harden, they are solid enough to be wedged into the meringue.
After dessert is presented, a feeling of relief sweeps across the lab. Despite some minor setbacks, Marc rates SACHS effort positively.
“We were missing some things. We could have practised more. But we did good. We did our best yet.”
Of the Paul Kane team, Brandon says, “I feel we did a really well. At first we were nervous, but we really work well together and can’t wait to do it again.”
Ending on a note that received a big laugh and few nodding heads, he says, “But first I want to get a massage. My back is killing me.”
The top three teams will be announced at a Shaw Conference awards dinner on March 6. The menu, cooked by professional chefs, is identical to the challenge. For ticket information visit http://www.highschoolculinarychallenge.ca