PUNXSUTAWNEY â€” What are four first-year, first-semester culinary students doing entering a timed cooking competition that pitted them against some of the most recognizable industry names in the nation?
Bringing home a bronze medal, that's what.
Jan. 10 and 11, Indiana University of Pennsylvania Academy of Culinary Arts students Bradley Drake, 31, John Mink, 26, J'aime Abramowitz, 28, and Megan Kauffman, 21 â€” a Punxsy native â€” competed in the Skidmore College ACF Sanctioned Culinary Competition at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
"When they came to me about this opportunity, I had some resistance," said Chef Gary D. Fitting of the IUP Academy of Culinary Arts. "The reason why is, they haven't had any protein classes here at all â€” no chicken, beef, veal â€” nothing. I was sort of hesitant. I said, that's like going from high school football to the professional league."
But the students won their instructor over, and Fitting helped them with the registration process.
However, he pointed out that the four took the reins from there, paying their own registration fee, their own driving expenses and their hotel reservations.
The idea to compete actually came from Mink, who was browsing the American Culinary Federation's website when he saw a listing for the competition.
"I just called Brad up and said, 'Hey, you want to do something insane with me?'" Mink said.
Drake did, and soon Abramowitz and Kauffman were on board as well.
"We jumped for the big leagues, and they actually let us in," Abramowitz said of registering for the competition.
Ten teams in all competed in the event, but the most daunting competition to the IUP students was the team from The Greenbrier, the famed spa and resort located in White Sulphur Springs, W.V.
However, with the task ahead, there was no time to dwell on seasoned competitors, though the IUP team members were the only students participating in the event.
The night before the competition, the teams received the list of ingredients they would be required to use.
One hour was allotted to formulate a four-course menu that utilized all the ingredients in some form.
Participants were also permitted to gather additional ingredients â€” such as flour or fruits â€” in that hour, before turning their team menus over to the judges.
Prior to the competition, the IUP team members talked about possible recipes and how they would prepare certain proteins â€” but they were not expecting to find squid and rabbit on their list of required ingredients.
"All we knew is that we were getting a smattering of ingredients that we'd have to do something with," Mink said.
Luckily, Abramowitz had worked with squid before. She'd never worked with rabbit, though, but "was kind of designated the butcher. I had to break down two whole rabbits."
Abramowitz was expecting the task to take her half an hour, but the time quickly stretched to an hour.
"The bone structure wasn't what I expected," she said. "I had to be so careful to get all of these little, featherweight bones out of there."
The rabbits were eventually turned into a roulade stuffed with leeks and shiitake mushrooms sauteed in rendered bacon fat.
Other ingredients on the list included halibut, farro, Adirondack blue potatoes, haricot vert, yellow beefsteak tomatoes, Fortune apples, butternut squash, kumquats, blackberries and walnuts.
Of course, halibut is a familiar fish, but as Mink pointed out, one wrong move of the pan and, "it goes from raw to burned in an instant."
"More like raw to rubber," Abramowitz said.
"Yeah, that too," Mink agreed.
In addition to the mystery ingredients, the team had two hours the day of the competition to prep and prepare their first three courses, all while working with just four butane burners.
An additional 15 minutes was permitted for plating. The final course consisted of a buffet item for 10 and two show plates. Another hour for
preparation and 15 minutes for plating was allotted for that portion of the competition.
With such a tight deadline, teamwork played heavily into the success of the students, who relied on each otherâ€™s strengths.
"Time management was key," Drake said.
For Kauffman, the biggest stress was waiting for the competition to start. Once the timer started ticking, she focused on her work, which mainly was ingredient preparation.
"She has the best knife skills out of all of us," Drake said.
As for Drake, he took care of dessert â€” for which he was permitted to use an oven â€” and whipped up poached apples with a goat cheese filling and Nordic spice cookies with blackberry sauce.
He incorporated the farro into this dish by grinding it down into flour.
Mink was in charge of appetizers, creating a squid ceviche and dill cream dressing drizzled over chard greens, as well as an onion and pepper salad with a vinegar-based dressing that he said provided a "faux pickle-type flavor to complement the ceviche."
"The ingredients just kind of fell together," Abramowitz said.
The team's recipes and skills were enough to impress the five judges.
Victor Sommo and James G. Rhoades, III, were the service and floor judges, evaluating the teams on sanitation, food handling, organization and use of ingredients.
Dale Miller, Noble Masi and Fritz Sonnenschmidt were the service and tasting evaluation judges, rating the dishes on flavor, creativity and ingredient compatibility.
No teams were actually permitted to watch the judges taste their food.
Though the Punxsy team had been warned to expect a harsh critique, they found the judges' feedback both beneficial and fascinating.
"They were actually very constructive," Drake said. He and his fellow team members agreed that they could have spent hours listening to the judges critique their dishes.
"The running theme of their commentary was, the dishes were ambitious, the flavors were executed well," Mink said. "It was all technical things that our dishes got hit on."
The contest was judged on a point basis, meaning each team that fell within a certain point category would be awarded a corresponding medal.
If a team did not meet the point values, it would not be awarded a medal.
Mink thought he saw a medal beside his team's presentation plating.
He urged his fellow members to look, but one no one else could believe quite yet that they would be taking home medals. Soon, they would have their bronze.
"I think we were all in awe," Kauffman said.
While the medal certainly gives the IUP students bragging rights, it was the experience that they say will most benefit their future careers â€”Â not to mention help with their immediate studies.
Drake described the competition as "exactly like 'Chopped,'" the popular Food Network television show featuring a cooking competition.
"A lot more stressful, though," Mink added.
"It was definitely a learning experience," Kauffman said. "It was good to talk to the chefs from other teams."
Abramowitz agrees that though competition was strong, camaraderie among
the teams was even stronger.
"The profession is just incredible," she said. "It's a hospitality industry, and it just shows."
Hospitality â€”Â and guidance â€” at home helped as well.
In addition to Chef Fitting, the team thanked John Kapusta and Jaclyn Price, IUP Academy of Culinary Arts instructors; and Kevin Hodgkinson and Paul CotÃ©, chefs from Aramark in Indiana.
"They're all outstanding students to begin with," Chef Fitting said, "but to go above and beyond â€” this is just amazing."