What do you get when you agree to judge a "Top Chef"-style showdown between sixteen culinary students? Answer: a whole array of interesting dishes, and a major food coma.
This past Tuesday and Wednesday, I was the guest judge for the students running The Tutored Chef*- a restaurant that is open to the public and operated by culinary students at the Art Institute of Tampa. I was asked to return to my alma mater to assist in judging the class' final practical exams because I won this "competition" two quarters ago, and, of course, I enthusiastically agreed to participate. Can you say: free food? And having the chance to adjudicate my former classmates was a bonus incentive.
The gist of the competition: each student had to complete two courses (an entree with a sauce, a starch and vegetable, and a dessert) from items provided by the instructors. That meant a sixteen course meal both days for us judges. (I was very full, to say the least.) We would then choose one winner for each entree categories, which would then be featured on the restaurant's menu next quarter.
Some of the more unique entrees I got to sample were: braised veal shanks with a brandy-red wine reduction, served with lemon-goat cheese orzo with white truffle oil and sauteed summer squash; grouper topped with a "tropical" fruit salsa and a mojo sauce, served with Spanish chorizo cous cous; and roasted salmon wrapped in black pepper-maple bacon, topped with hollandaise and capers (my comment: "it's like breakfast salmon!"), served with barley risotto and crab-stuffed artichoke hearts. I found that almost every one of the dishes served contained some form of pork product -- did they remember my fondness for it?
As for desserts, some of the highlights were Mexican bunuelos (mini fried donuts) with various fillings, served with a cognac-dulce de leche and an orange-brown sugar syrup for dipping, as well as a Kahlua spiked coffee; a dessert "sushi" roll made of sweet sticky rice, cream cheese, toasted pecans, green apples, and strawberries with mango on the outside, served with blackberry-sake coulis and creme anglaise, with a shot of cold sake on the side (bribery?); and a "Floribbean" croquembouche (a mini tower of cream puffs) filled with pineapple pastry cream and served with a white chocolate-rum anglaise and strawberry coulis. I noticed that just about every single dessert used alcohol and it was usually in an uncooked sauce. I had to give it to these kids, getting the judges all liquored up was probably a good strategy.
After much debate (arguing even, on my part), we actually chose two entrees to be featured on the next menu: grilled shrimp and scallops over coconut ginger rice with a "green vegetable" coulis (I distinctly tasted bell pepper) and coconut ginger reduction, with a side of roasted tomatoes; and handmade pork and chorizo empanadas filled with salsa and cheese, served with a purple cabbage slaw and adobo-seasoned rice. They were both solid dishes -- simple ingredients cooked perfectly and plated beautifully -- and they showed knowledge of various culinary techniques. The winning dessert was a "sans rival" -- a traditional Filipino dessert made of layers of crispy meringue with toasted almonds with a buttercream filling in between. It was chewy, crunchy, nutty and delicious!
The students' talent and creativity could rival that of many seasoned chefs; I know that they will go far in their culinary endeavors. The whole experience was entertaining and an adventure for my tastebuds (though I don't think I'll be able to eat anything for the next two days). Will I accept this honor and challenge again in three months? Most definitely, but I'll be fasting for about a week beforehand.
*The Tutored Chef will be open for lunch every Tuesday and Wednesday from 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., starting January 22nd. It is located on the second floor of the AI Tampa building at 4401 N. Himes Ave. in Tampa.