Bringing home the bronze: Dining hall chefs compete in first ACF competition

One of the competitors, Rajendra Simkhada (above), was nominated for and won UConn Dining Services’ Employee of the Year for 2015. He was noted for his “strength of character,” dedication and punctuality and his upbeat personality even through personal struggles, according to his nomination letter submitted by McMahon Manager Joseph Ferris. (Amar Batra/Daily Campus)

Earlier in January, a team of chefs from the University of Connecticut’s Dining Services participated in the 5th annual American Culinary Federation (ACF) Culinary Conference & Competition at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.

UConn’s team consisted of Megan Flanagan and Matthew Smith from Northwest, Rajendra Simkhada from McMahon and Kristina Breuninger from the Gluten Free Bakery. While dining services has sent teams to similar competitions in the past, this was the university’s first time participating at this particular competition, Dining Services’ Culinary Manager Robert Landolphi said.

One of the competitors, Rajendra Simkhada, was nominated for and won UConn Dining Services’ Employee of the Year for 2015. He was noted for his “strength of character,” dedication and punctuality and his upbeat personality even through personal struggles, according to his nomination letter submitted by McMahon Manager Joseph Ferris.

A total of 12 culinary teams, all representing colleges and universities, competed in the event. UConn’s team came away with a bronze medal for their winning dishes.

“This was the first time we competed at Skidmore – and the first time these four chefs competed as a team,” Landolphi said.

Team members were first asked if they would be interested in participating in the competition. Some chefs enjoy working under competitive pressure, while some don’t feel comfortable with working under such constraints.

“I only send chefs who are interested in the challenge, and those that thrive under pressure,” Landolphi said.

The three day event began on January 6th with a lot of tours, tastings and meals prepared by Skidmore College. January 7th consisted of meals, presentations, a chocolate tasting and an overview of basket ingredients and rules for the competition. January 8th was a full day of competition, with the chefs preparing their first three courses and presenting them to the judges. Following this was a buffet presentation open to all teams, and finally awards later in the day. A total of seven judges evaluated the competition, according to the ACF competition itinerary.

The basket ingredients were as follows, according to Landolphi:

  • Proteins: Teres Major (beef), whole duck, Hake (fish)
     
  • Fruits: apricots, avocados, plums, pineapples
     
  • Vegetables: celery root, spinach, acorn squash, Portobello mushrooms, Haricot Vert (green beans)
     
  • Grains: Farro, Beluga Lentils, chestnuts, fingerling potatoes, pistachios, hazelnuts, oatmeal stout

Each team was given the ingredients above, and had one hour to compose a four-course meal using some part of every ingredient. Their task was to create either four salads or appetizers, either four soups or desserts, four entrees and a buffet platter for ten including two show plates (one for the judges and one for display photo). During the hour, teams were also allowed to gather additional ingredients not included in the basket. When the menus were complete, teams submitted them to the judges, according to the ACF competition general rules.

On the day of the actual competition, teams were not allowed to gather additional ingredients aside from common spices and accompaniments. Each team was limited to only four butane burners (no fryers, flat tops or broilers) and could only use an oven or freezer for desserts. The teams prepared their first three courses during the first two hours of the competition, and then had an additional hour to prepare the buffet platter and show plates, according to the rules.

UConn’s team produced the following dishes for the competition, which won a bronze medal, according to Landolphi:

  • Appetizer: Portobello, fingerling potato and beef ravioli
     
  • Entrée: Pineapple and plum glazed duck, farro risotto and bacon wrapped haricot verts
     
  • Dessert: Pistachio and apricot tart, chestnut infused mascarpone cream, plum sauce
     
  • Buffett Item: Pan-fried fish cake with lentil puree, cabbage slaw and pineapple avocado salsa

The dishes were scored out of 60 points in reference to service methods/presentation; portion size and nutritional value; creativity, menu and ingredient compatibility; flavor, taste, texture and doneness; and service/floor area cleanliness, according to ACF’s point criteria.

For Dining Services, the event is an important educational experience, as the teams are judged by Certified Master Chefs from the ACF. The judges offer critiques and suggestions for improving members’ skills in the future, Landolphi said.

“The best part of the competition for spectators was the creative dishes that these teams create,” Landolphi said. “All the teams are so creative and so competitive.


Molly Stadnicki is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at molly.stadnicki@uconn.edu.