Watching chefs compete on such TV shows as "Top Chef", "Chopped" and "The Taste," it looks like the judges have a pretty clear idea about the winners and losers. But real-life judging is another story, as I found out when I participated as one of five judges in the second annual FARE Culinary Competition. The entries were really close. And it’s really tough to come to a decision.
The Culinary Competition kicked off Day One of the FARE conference, which ran from June 16 to 18 in Dallas. FARE, which is presented by Restaurant Business and its sister publications, brings together operators from each of the foodservice channels—restaurants, health care, colleges and convenience stores. Each of these channels was represented by the four teams of two participating in the Culinary Competition:
Katzie Guy-Hamilton, director of food and beverage for Max Brenner restaurants; Herschel Walker, president & CEO, H. Walker Enterprises, LLC and Renaissance Man Food Services LLC
Edward Rodriguez, senior kitchen manager, University of Southern California; Andy Wittman, culinary operations manager, Pizza Inn/Pie Five Pizza Co.
Jason Beecher, culinary manager of product development, Wawa, Inc.; Paul Glassman, food and beverage director, Five Star Senior Living
Ben Lucky, director of foodservice, Sprint Food Stores; Pete Torres, executive chef, Dallas Medical Center
Admittedly, former NFL player Herschel Walker was a bit of a distraction. Lots of cellphone photos, selfies, photo bombs just to get in a picture with him, but he handled it with grace and patience. He just wanted to cook! Lucky for him, Team 3 was first up, so Herschel was able to get the paparazzi out of the way and start chopping.
The teams, charged with the task of preparing the tastiest, most creative, most portable and nicely presented dish, began by choosing from a market basket of ingredients. It was mandatory to include either a chicken or pork product, and if the contestants incorporated two proteins, they got extra credit. Also on the must-use list were several other sponsored products, including bottled sauces, flat breads and an array of seasonings. Once those requirements were met, the teams were free to grab from the array of fresh produce and kitchen staples to personalize their dishes. Countdown from start to finish was one hour, with start times staggered at 15-minute intervals.
Soon the tantalizing aromas from the cooking stations wafted up to the judges’ table and by the time Team 3 presented their finished item, I was ravenous. Their mesquite chicken flatbread sandwich was layered with caramelized onions, spicy chipotle, crumbled chorizo, salad greens and roasted peppers tossed with balsamic glaze—all topped with a fried egg. That egg hit a top trend showing up on restaurant menus—fried, poached and coddled eggs are topping burgers, pizza, salads and more, the runnier the yolk, the better to integrate it into the dish. Beecher and Glassman explained that the egg gave the sandwich leeway to go from lunch to breakfast or brunch. The pair also did a good job of layering flavors and textures.
Next up was Team 1—Herschel Walker and Katzie Guy-Hamilton. Walker intercepted many interruptions from the crowd but managed (with Guy-Hamilton’s share of the workload) to turn out a versatile handheld flatbread that could multitask as a grab-and-go lunch or snack; an appetizer or starter. The duo prepared a pork, chicken and apple hash that they piled on the flatbread; a parmesan-honey dip was served on the side. The sweet-savory flavor combo and the incorporation of dipping into the presentation were both in step with current trends.
On to Team 2’s multilayered flatbread sandwich with a cheese-and-chicken-stuffed rice ball on the side. For the sandwich, Rodriguez and Wittman topped toasted focaccia with grilled pork shoulder that had been treated to a quick cure in brown sugar, then added caramelized onions, vegetable slaw and a raspberry-chipotle sauce. Curing and caramelizing are two chef-driven techniques that impart big flavor. Here again, the sweet heat trend emerged in the flavor profile and the garlic Parmesan sauce over the deep-fried rice ball added another savory element to the mix.
While all the teams used at least two proteins, Team 4’s entry incorporated four. Lucky and Torres blended ground Italian sausage and chorizo to form a burger, grilled the patty and topped it with shredded pork shoulder in a tangy barbecue sauce. Crispy shards of chicken skin, which they slivered off the prepared chicken wings and fried to make “chicharrones,” added intriguing crunch. Utilizing four kinds of meat is a smart way to control food costs; there’s the flexibility of changing up the proteins if one skyrockets in price. The cooks added garlic-parmesan chimichurri to the sandwich and sides of grilled fresh pineapple and homemade, spiced tortilla chips, accents that evoked an authentic Mexican torta in a convenient, cost-effective format.
As consumers continue to eat on the run, every foodservice channel is expanding and upgrading its grab-and-go selections to compete for that busy customer. It was interesting to observe how the contestants from c-stores, restaurants and non-commercial foodservice were all hitting the same trends as they developed their dishes.
After tasting and evaluating all four entries, we retreated to the “judges’ chamber”— a private meeting room in the Gaylord Texan, where FARE was held—and deliberated for over an hour. The entries all met the criteria and were so close in execution, taste, presentation and creativity. But we did finally come to a decision. And the winner was … Team 4! Their torta hit all the touch points: an appealing mash-up of global flavors and texture, a handheld format for easy portability and a cost-effective use of ingredients. Perhaps the torta will show up in a QSR, college dining hall or c-store soon.