Culinary Skills Put to the Test in Campus Cook-off
By Jill Gambon
Hours after finishing the final presentation for his doctoral degree, Timothy Duffy wrapped up another accomplishment. He and two classmates sliced, chopped, sautéed and plated their way to the campus Iron Chef championship.
“I love to cook,” says Duffy, who along with teammates Thomas Sniezek and Jason Skeldon will receive doctor of physical therapy degrees this month. “This was a lot of fun.”
Duffy and his friends, who competed as the Natural Born Grillers, bested two other teams in the final round of the culinary contest fashioned after the popular Food Network cable TV program. They won top honors for their creation of a buffalo chicken pizza appetizer, an entrée of chicken over pasta with blue cheese Alfredo sauce and fried dough puffs with blueberry syrup for dessert.
In a high-pressure contest where teamwork is key, the three graduate students agreed they benefitted from having worked together on group projects for class – in addition to having some kitchen know-how. Sniezek said he learned how to make sauces and other basics when he worked as a dishwasher at local Italian restaurant.
More than three dozen students participated in the third annual cook-off, which was organized by Campus Dining Services and included three nights of preliminary rounds and culminated in the final show-down at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center (ICC).
In the final, students had 75 minutes to prepare an appetizer, an entrée and a dessert. Each course had to incorporate mystery ingredients, which, in a nod to UMass Lowell’s official school color, turned out to be several blue-hued foods —blue cheese, blue corn chips, blueberries, blueberry soda, blue potatoes and Trix cereal with its cerulean pieces. The teams had access to a variety of fresh ingredients, pantry goods and spices as well as whisks, knives and other professional utensils and industrial-grade appliances in the ICC’s kitchen. A panel of five judges scored the dishes for taste and presentation.
Also vying for top honors were last year’s winning team, “Kiss the Chef,” made up of five students who share an off-campus apartment and shop and prepare meals together, and “Let’s Wok and Roll,” a group that included two veterans from last year’s competition and two newcomers.
Once the contest got under way, the students hustled around the kitchen, grabbing ingredients, divvying up tasks. They sliced potatoes and chopped onions. They sautéed chicken and kneaded pizza dough. They heated blueberry soda until it was reduced to a thick, sweet syrup.
The Kiss the Chef team cooked up a heaping platter of blue corn chip nachos with melted blue cheese and turkey burgers with bacon and thin-sliced fried blue potatoes. Dessert was French toast with crushed Trix. The Let’s Wok and Roll crew concocted a starter of corn chips and dips and panko-crust baked chicken stuffed with blue cheese and bacon as the main course. For dessert they created a no-bake blueberry cheesecake.
As the allotted time wound down, the adrenaline level in the room shot up. The student chefs scrambled to create eye-pleasing presentations for each course. They cut appetizers into bite size pieces for the crowd to sample and ladled sauce over the desserts. After time was called, each team presented its meal to the judges and answered questions about the culinary creations. They offered samples to spectators, who cast votes for a People’s Choice award.
When the scores were tallied, only a half a point separated the Natural Born Grillers from Let’s Wok and Roll. Kiss the Chef came in third but won the People’s Choice award.
Participation in the culinary competition has been growing since it was launched in the spring of 2010, according to Rachel DiGregorio, marketing manager for Aramark, which runs campus food services.
“The best part of the program is having students come out and celebrate cooking,” she says. “Drive-throughs, frozen foods and prepared meals certainly have their place in our hectic lifestyles, but to see young people find the joy, creativity and overall love of preparing a meal from scratch is fantastic.”
Several local restaurants were on hand for the competition, providing free samples to the crowd of spectators. There was also a “Food Challenge,” in which students could try 50 unusual foods like pig’s feet and olive loaf.
The other finalists included Let’s Wok and Roll team members Ashley Tello, a senior psychology major, Sophie Hansen, a senior with a double major in criminal justice and psychology, Trudy Umstead, a sophomore fine arts major and Kelsey Lenfest, a freshman biology major.
The Kiss the Chef team members included Tim Ludy and Ricky Sheehan, both seniors majoring in marketing, Steve Shibilia, a senior management major, Robert Amuzzini, a senior finance major and Clancy Main, a junior majoring in political science.