The minute I was handed a clipboard the room changed.
Students decked out in their newly starched white chef uniforms eyed me nervously, recording my face. The other three judges approached me with wry smiles and introduced themselves. I was the fourth judge for the Harvest Feast Culinary Competition.
The process appeared simple enough: there were nine teams competing, ranging from the elite Le Cordon Bleu culinary school to lesser known technical institutes. All students were given a tray full of produce, kitchen utensils, working material and a mystery ingredient, revealed to them only minutes before they would begin. They then had fifteen minutes to plan and one hour to execute a savory dish and a sweet dish.
The clipboard held a blank sheet waiting to be filled with my observations and scores. On the left was a list of the team numbers. On the top of the sheet were the different categories to be considered: Skills, Sweet Dish, Savory Dish, Use of Materials and Presentation. Each category would receive a score from 1 to 10, 10 being the best.
The mystery ingredient was revealed: mussels.
As the Culinary Director shouted, “go!” and the timer began to tick, I watched these students fervently get to work, running around, chopping onions, peeling fingerling potatoes, cracking open fresh pomegranates, doing anything and everything to leave a lasting impression on me.
I walked around slowly observing, careful not to be too harsh, remembering my tenure at Le Cordon Bleu in Mexico and the harried nature in which I worked to produce pastries and cakes which would then be judged by my forgiving French instructor, Chef Eric, a pensive and sedate man that carefully nudged me towards improvement:
“Put more wrist into it,” when I whisked my egg whites haphazardly.
“No tanta mantequilla, Alona,” when my hand overstepped its bounds on the communal slab of butter.
“Magnifique!” on the rare occasion my gateaux would be stellar.
Chef Eric never shouted, unlike his colleague, Jean Paul, whom I could hear screaming at my frazzled peers in the other kitchen.
The students at this competition were not working in a state-of-the-art facility overlooking the lush mountains of Lomas Anáhuac, like I had in Mexico City. Each team was allotted one plastic rectangle folding table to work at and access to one shared stovetop sputtering under the zealous demands of hopeful winners. There was one oven to bake their magic in.
I ignored what school was at which table and simply walked around and observed, immediately noticing personalities popping out in each group. There was the obsessive-compulsive table, where not a spill or a crumb could be seen at all times (plus two points). There was the assiduous table, where one fellow took what felt like 45 of his 60 minutes to sift and inspect each individual leaf of spinach (minus two points.) There were tables I wanted to join in on the fun: That table, there, the one where they are all smiling and having a good time, carving extravagant shapes out of carrots and oranges and strawberries! And there were tables I wanted to join to roll up my sleeves and help out: Dude, put your gloves on, clean your scraps up, let’s make it pop, put some contrast on that plate, there, there, go!
The power entrusted in me was a bit stifling, I confess. How was I to judge these students fairly? Some were just kids, maybe 18 or 19, some, seasoned adults, turning to Culinary Arts as a second or third career. Surely they wore patience, resilience, and time on this earth as a badge?
When the hour was up the teams were asked to move away from their tables.
There was a communal sigh of relief until the four judges were called to taste. Then the air grew thick with anticipation. Eyes burned on me in hopeful prayer.
We arrived to table one, four clipboards in hand, and began discussing and sampling. We had five minutes for each table. There were all sorts of displays of creativity, from meticulously arranged mussels over thin threads of cucumber to carefully concocted sauces, to mussels hidden under clumps of undercooked mystery mash. Desserts were varied as well: light and airy profiteroles graced the winner’s plate, undercooked strawberry scones proved to be the demise of another hopeful contender and harried chopped lettuce with strawberries appeared to be a last-minute resort for the team struggling with time management.
This was not a glitzy television episode on Food Network, I later explained to my children, who seemed slightly disappointed I did not meet with Bobby Flay. But even without the glamour, cameras and lighting, this was an evening worth paying attention to. It was a night filled with achievement, determination and good will. A boisterous group of students going for a dream, pursing it with the purest of intentions, creativity, and hard work.
In the end, I went with camaraderie, not just taste and presentation. I scored tables as a team effort: those who helped each other out, those who had the best laid-out plan, those who worked together as a team. This, after all, is what will guide them, not just a chefs, but through all aspects of their lives.
The winners were one of the underdogs and when they were called up for first place all the teams erupted in applause. Proud parents jumped around the room with cameras, capturing their child’s efforts as if they were Bobby Flay. Students flanked around the judges with questions on how they could improve.
The final plated dishes were presented in a communal table for all to admire, and when placed on that white linen tablecloth in an appealing circular display under crisp white lighting, it could have easily been mistaken for a closing shot of The Next Great Chef. Of course, it helps if the mussels aren’t overcooked.
- 2 lbs. mussels, scrubbed clean
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 3/4 cup white wine
- 1/4 cup minced shallots
- 3 tablespoons fresh basil, minced
- 1 small tomato, chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- Rinse mussels under cold running water. Discard any that are chipped and/or have cracks.
- Over medium high heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet.
- Saute shallots, stirring, about 2 minutes. Your kitchen is smelling good now.
- Add the white wine and bring to a boil (raise the heat to high!) I could steer you towards fancy whites with crisp flavor and undertones of apricot or pear but, really, use whatever old wine you have (just make sure it's white.) Save the good stuff for the dinner table!
- Add the mussels in a single layer (as much as you can fit) and put a lid on it!
- Lower the heat to medium and let simmer for 3 to 5 minutes.
- You can act all fancy and shake the thing around if you want. This works well if you've got someone to impress. My dog fancies the sound.
- In any case, you need the shells to open up but you don't want to overcook them lest you dig eating something akin to chewing gum.
- After 5 minutes remove from heat. Toss whomever didn't want to open. They're disqualified.
- Add salt, a bit of fresh pepper and the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter.
- Spoon sauce on the bottom of the pan over the mussels.
- As the butter melts, the sauce will become glossy and extra yummy.
- Sprinkle the minced basil and chopped tomato and serve immediately.
- This stuff is good with thick slabs of crusty country bread.
- Serves 4-6
The key is keeping it simple and not overcooking!