AMHERST, Mass. – Culinary skills don’t stop at national borders.
A team of three student chefs from the University of Massachusetts Amherst traveled to McGill University in Montreal on Feb. 8 and won the first International Inter-University Iron Chef Competition.
Coached by Hampshire Dining Commons Chef Anthony Jung, the UMass team of seniors Evan White and Nick Becker and junior Tiffany Thompson bested teams from McGill, the University of Ottawa and the University of Toronto.
Each team had two hours to create two dishes, one of them vegetarian.
All meals were made with fair trade and organic ingredients the contestants found in a prepared “mystery basket.” The ingredients included fair-trade pepper, humanely raised pork and organic jade rice, according to McGill chef Oliver de Volpi, who organized the event.
“Student participants and the student audience loved the event,” de Volpi said. “UMass has a great dining program and it shows.”
Ken Toong, executive director of auxiliary enterprises at UMass, said, “We are so proud of our students. They worked hard for the last few weeks to hone their culinary skills under the direction of Chef Tony Jung. … Winning outside the country, away from a familiar setting, is never easy, but we did it.
“What a great way to showcase the talent of our students. What’s even more amazing is that the chefs used some of the ‘Real Food,’ fair trade and organicitems which we advocate at UMass Dining,” Toong said.
The competition was close, with second-place McGill matching UMass on points but presenting its food 40 seconds past deadline.
The UMass creations included appetizers of rice croquettes with crème fraiche. The meat entrée was pork loin with a parmesan quinoa herb crust, grilled asparagus and sweet potato hash with maple balsamic glaze. The vegetarian dish was tofu veggie strudel with charred tomato sauce, with zucchini mushrooms and peppers.
The teams were judged on serving methods and presentation; portion size and nutritional balance; menu and ingredient compatibility; creativity and practicality; flavor, taste, texture and doneness, and teamwork and cleanliness.
The judges were Montreal chef and TV personality Jonathan Garnier, Montreal chocolatier Juliette Brun and McGill chemistry professor Joe Schwarcz.
What makes a dish a winner? “The taste, for sure,” Garnier said. “But probably the originality behind the recipe, what they’ve done with the main ingredients.”
To prepare for the contest, Jung and his team met just four times.
“It comes down to having a strong grasp of the fundamentals, and having universal recipes that you can incorporate different ingredients into,” Jung said.
In one session, he said, “We really took a look at flavor and how we can combine ingredients to have maximum flavor.”
Jung, himself an accomplished competitive chef, has participated in 20 team and individual competitions and taken home nine gold medals. He gives his UMass team a lot of credit for their winning attitude.
“They seem like they have a passion for eating, first of all,” he said. “And they have a sense of urgency ... They are always asking, ‘How can I make his better.’”
Becker and White are hospitality and tourism management majors. Thompson is majoring in kinesiology.
Becker describes himself as always excited to learn new cooking techniques.
White started cooking as a hobby at age 12 and has worked in restaurants. “Once I got into UMass I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the hospitality industry,” he said. “Being able to be a part of the UMass team allowed me to see how a passion can be turned into an actual career.”
Thompson, who has worked in the UMass dining commons, learned to cook from her mom and dad, and food remains a way to connect with her family and to relax. At school she enjoys “cooking study breaks.”
“It is a great way to relieve stress and make a quality meal,” she said.
Toong said, “We look forward to hosting the 2015 Inter-University Iron Chef Competition at UMass.”