“Pandemonium!” That’s how Jim Sexton describes the scene on the evening before the American Culinary Federation team competition at the Chef Culinary Conference this past June.
Sexton, an instructor and chef in Pamplin’s hospitality and tourism management department, was part of a four-member team, together with Mark Bratton and Mark Badger, executive chef and chef de cuisine, respectively, at Virginia Tech’s West End Market dining hall, and Ed Glebus, an executive chef at San Diego State University.
Bratton said the experience was “intense,” while Badger, who was competing for the first time, recalls feeling an “awesome rush of panic combined with determination.”
The team ended up not only winning a gold medal (one of three teams that did) — but also scoring the most points of the 21 teams in the event, hosted by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
The achievement is remarkable, considering that team members had never before worked together, said Sexton, who also returned with food preparation tips to share in class.
Their challenge was to prepare a three-course meal and one dish for a buffet in three hours based on a mystery basket of ingredients.
The evening before the competition, the teams received their mystery basket and were given an hour to “shop” for additional components in the competition’s pantry (a list of its contents having been distributed earlier).
“It is the craziest thing ever!” Sexton said. “Seventy-plus people crammed together in a small pantry area, all aggressively grabbing their stuff — not only to be able to complete their menu but also to make sure they didn’t run out of any essential ingredients.”
The team speaking with Chef Richard Calladonato during the competition at the Chef Culinary Conference.
All the equipment had to be gathered as well at this free-for-all: “pots, pans, food processors, spoons, spatulas — all were in limited quantity, and everyone was grabbing whatever they could to get the job done,” he said.
Every second counts
Said Badger: “The clock was ticking down to the last few seconds, as we checked and doubled checked that we had all the items on our list. I felt a wave of relief and a boost of confidence that we were going to make this happen. I also felt really bad for whoever would be cleaning up after the humanoid typhoon of chefs. The pantry was wrecked.”
The teams had an hour to develop a written menu and turn it in. “No deviations from the menu were allowed from that point on,” Sexton said. “Each item in the basket had to be used. No substitutions of items in the basket could be made.”
To minimize waste, teams had 30 minutes at the start of the event to decide how much of the ingredients would be needed and what would not be used. “All trimmings and unused food had to be placed in a container for judging. Having an abundance of leftovers deducts from the score,” he said.
Added to the food issues were other challenges. “Our kitchen was one of them. Each team had only two butane burners to cook everything. No refrigeration was available. Ice was used to keep food cold.”
A menu for action
The menu that Sexton and his team created comprised four servings each of beet and broccoli soups — served side by side, in the same bowl; nut-crusted Arctic char; and pepper-seared steak. Chicken fricassee would be the buffet dish, to be presented in a large serving dish to serve 12.
“Each chef chose to take charge of one course,” he said. “Chef Bratton did the char, Chef Badger did the beef, Chef Ed did the soups, and I did the chicken.”
Each chef designed and presented his plate, he said, but they all pitched in to get the three plated courses out on time. As his buffet dish was to be completed in the hour following the judging of the three courses, Sexton helped by “inspecting each individual plate before it left our station” to ensure that menu requirements had been met.
Food, flavor, and presentation, he said, accounted for 60 percent of the points; organization, sanitation, and teamwork, 40 percent.
The value of competition goes beyond gold to bringing it back to the classroom
No stranger to culinary contests, Sexton has won several awards, though this is his first gold and the first time he competed “under these new rules and had food tasted as part of judging,” he said.
“Competing is an excellent way for any chef to keep up with new food items, food trends, and new techniques, and to test yourself in stressful situations,” he said.
With 40 years experience in a diversity of food operations, Sexton said he still learned a few things from the competition. He found it interesting, for example, to see how some ingredients — common in Mediterranean cuisine but unfamiliar to him — were employed.
“We prepared a phyllo dough crisp seasoned with a Mediterranean herb and spice blend I had never seen before. It is common there, much like curry blends are in India.”
Sexton, who runs his department’s food production lab and teaches the junior-level Purchasing, Production, and Management course, says this summer’s competition supplied some reminders of key lessons to share with his students.
“Professional behavior requires emphasis on organization, sanitation, eye appeal, flavor, portion sizes, and cost. You are challenged on those things in business and in competition because of their importance for success.”