Saturday, January 22, 2011

Skills USA - or, Why I Am Not Tony Bourdain

Judging is easy! thought I. It's a high school culinary competition in the morning and a baking competition in the afternoon. I'll waltz in, schmooz, look official and say foodie code words, and eat 17 dishes for lunch and 17 desserts for dinner. Oh and thank you very much for paying me for 12 hours of internship.

Such was not my day. The judging actually entailed work, of the laborious, mentally-taxing kind. Our score sheet had actual criteria--so much so that we three judges had to divide it into thirds to tackle in a somewhat timely manner. One judge had to evaluate the students' mise en place (the general orderliness of their stations) and professional attire; one judge evaluated their knife skills, including mincing, dicing, julienning (long thin strips), and the ever-so-ridiculous tourne, aka "why do I want a carrot that looks like a 7 sided football?"

I got to evaluate all 17 students on food sanitation and safety practices.

This means running around the entire room at once to make sure every cutting board is put on a wet towel so it doesn't slip and fall off the table; every knife cut is deliberate and non-frantic-hacking; every meat product is removed and thoroughly scrubbed and sanitized from the prep area before the next product is prepped so there is no danger of cross-contamination; and everything is cooked to the minimum safe internal cooking temperature within a safe amount of time.

It was a LOT of work and I was not even slightly prepared. I was expected not only to observe each of these kids at every moment and spot any sanitation discrepancy, but be able to quiz the kids on these standards at the same time. I resorted to the same three questions: "what's the temperature danger zone?" (41-135 degrees, give or take. This is constantly revised and changes based on who you're asking, but I was looking for the ballpark.) "how long can you leave food in the temperature danger zone before you must throw it out?" (4 hours, aka GRANDMA DON'T EAT MEAT THAT WAS LEFT OUT OVERNIGHT!) "what is the minimum internal temperature for cooking chicken?" (165 degrees)

(I got some very interesting responses... Temperature danger zone went from "40 to 410 degrees." You can leave food in the temperature danger zone for "two days." The chicken was pretty easy to everyone to remember, which was fortunate because they were cooking chicken.)

It was actually a very thorough meal, wasting little while demonstrating a multitude of techniques in addition to requiring the students to utilize good time management and planning ahead. They were given a whole chicken to break down. The thighs and wings were put away to be used by the Food Bank where this competition was held. The breasts were held to make the main course. And the carcass was put in a pot to make stock, which when completed was used to make a rice pilaf and a veloute sauce (like white gravy). In addition, veggies were chopped for the stock and julienned for a sauteed vegetable side dish along with the rice and chicken breast, which was pounded thin, stuffed with sauteed spinach and pepper jack cheese, wrapped in bacon and roasted in the oven. So a very impressive demonstration of ability in 2.5 hours! Every single person was late getting their plate to judging, but nobody turned in undercooked chicken (which would have been instant disqualification).

Here are some of the plates presented!

Some were remarkably unsuccessful.

What is this I don't even

Some were considerably more balanced, although every single plate suffered from what I call "Olive Garden" syndrome, where it apparently can't be sent out until it has three times the amount of food that should be consumed by any one person at a given time.

As seen here, in one of the better plates.

Overall I have to say the scores were pretty middle-to-low...the food tended to be underseasoned and either over or underdone, and the plates were as mentioned always really crowded. But considering these were high school kids, it really did impress me.

Next came the baking competition! While not as nerve-wracking in some respects (they had 5 hours to the 2.5 of the morning's challenge, and fewer sanitation concerns since it was baking and not poultry), these kids had even more on their plate (no pun intended). Each student was responsible for producing all of the following: a loaf of bread, yeast rolls, sugar cookies, cinnamon rolls, puff pastry desserts, pie, and a decorated cake. They were able to bring their starter dough for the bread, the cakes (the important thing was demonstrating icing and decorating techniques for that one), and the puff pastry and filling were both store-bought. So while not 100% start-to-finish original, it is still a FREAKING TON OF WORK. Few students finished everything--I am absolutely astonished that anybody at all did! They are set for a terrific future in the pastry program at St Philip's or wherever they decide to take their mad skillz.

Observe these mise en place skills.

These particular tables got behind as the event went on. I noticed that almost without exception, the tables that were the most orderly and neat were the tables where the student completed all the products. The students whose tables started overpiled with bowls and ingredients did not finish everything. I am positive there is a direct correlation. Some students were able to visualize what they needed to accomplish and in what order, and they prepared for it well. Some could not.

I got to judge three different types of products: cinnamon rolls, puff pastry products (they could do a variety of shapes; the only rule was that fruit filling be baked into the puff pastry dough) and pies (not so much for flavor since it was the same canned fruit product, but I was to judge for the flakiness, thinness, and doneness of the crust as well as how sufficiently filled with fruit the pie was). Again, some of the products turned out surprisingly fantastic, at least on par with what my school would produce.

This was the ONLY person who remembered to egg wash their puff pastry before baking it. That's what gives it that lovely golden brown color as well as the shine. Everyone else lost points for color. If it looks as pasty as me, it ain't done cooking!

While cute, I had to dock this person and a couple more like them because they baked the puff pastry sheets on their own and then put the fruit on after removing from the oven. It was against the rules. I could see why they tried going in this direction and it was pretty....sorry that wasn't enough.

But check out this pie!

That's a nice pie.

Even the chefs learned a trick or two from the students! One girl demonstrated making an icing rose on a dowel by forming petals into a long skinny flower, and then pulling a piece of paper underneath the flower so that all the petals smooshed upward and suddenly it became a perfect rose.


And Judy got a whole bunch of birthday cakes. That's an interesting default name!

The scores were either pretty decent (if they completed all their products) or pretty low (if they were among the many students who did not complete everything). I was highly impressed with most of these students--they put in a long day to complete tasks that would challenge my peers.

Overall, I enjoyed interacting with the kids, evangelizing St Philip's to interested students, networking with the other judges, and developing improved skills of mass observation. But I could not feel less like a celebrity chef--I didn't saunter in, try the cuisine, make some pithy, snarky comments and head out into the sunset. I am thoroughly tired of sweets for the near future and my feet hurt. But if not a culinary rockstar, I am still left feeling very fortunate and very pleased to have participated in this event.