by Shawn Timmerman
The culinary team at Isle Casino Hotel Bettendorf recently participated in the Second Annual Riverside Culinary Competition. The competition is organized by the American Culinary Federation of Southeast Iowa. Chapters around the country have these competitions to encourage culinary excellence. There are eight categories: salad, soup, beef, duck, pork, seafood, dessert, and a student category. Only eight entries are allowed per category.
We competed last year and were lucky enough to be awarded two gold awards and one silver. So, we decided we should enter again this year and chose to compete in three of the categories: beef, pork, and seafood. The inaugural year only had 32 total entries. This year every category was full! 64 entries and the pressure was on.
The day before the competition was prep day. We made sauces, broke down the meats, and basically got everything ready for the big day. On this day there’s a virtual “laundry list” of things running through your head and it’s constantly being rearranged and updated.
Pots, pans, tongs, towels, salt and pepper?
Did I feed the dog?
Cutting boards, chaffers, on and on and on – literally two full-size trucks loaded.
Maybe I should write this stuff down? Nah.
After two separate trips to get coffee from Dunn’s brothers we were finally on the road. We arrived at our destination a little later than we wanted to but that was ok. We started to set up and started preparing our dishes in a little side room about the size of a nice walk-in closet, and quite a distance from the big kitchen. Wish I would’ve brought my Nikes.
Things were going well. I was a little anxious, a touch nervous, and excited all at the same time. Emotions can change at the blink of an eye when you’re in a cooking competition.
Things were going well (or so I thought). So I headed down to the main kitchen to cook off my proteins. Have you ever seen the food fight scene from the movie “Animal House”? Imagine that but cooking the food instead of throwing it…well, maybe a little throwing. I seared off the meat, found the nearest available oven and threw it in. The meat was in a marinade that I was going to reduce down to make a sauce. I handed that to one of my cooks so he could take it back to the other room and get it on heat. Note to home chefs: not all marinades can be reduced down to make a sauce. Be careful when using this technique.
Checked the clock. I had twenty-four minutes left until my dish needed to be plated up and out, I felt good. I had no worries…. Remember when I said things were going well?
The oven was set at 350. Perfect. The problem was that someone was opening the oven every two minutes to check on their product. As a result the oven couldn’t stay at temperature. Side note to home cooks: don’t keep opening your ovens to check on your dish. Wait until just before the suggested time before you start checking.
People were literally flying around the kitchen, and I’m just standing there, waiting. I’m good. I’m good. It’s ok. I noticed other chefs starting to pull out their plates. I’m good. I’m good.
I checked the meat. Not done. I checked the clock. Fifteen minutes until I needed to be plated. Then, I got that sinking feeling in my stomach, and I took a deep breath. Chefs were starting to plate up their food all around me. I checked the meat again. Still not done! Then I see plates leaving the kitchen to be judged. “No way,” I thought. Checked the clock again. Ten minutes. Now that sinking feeling was more than just a tingle. Checked the meat and glanced at the clock. Screw it I gotta go! I pull the meat out of the oven and fly down the hall, ducking and weaving as if I’m running back for the Bears.
I had to get back to the room and the first thing I noticed was the sauce…NOT on heat, not reducing, nothing. Are you kidding me!?!? After a few not so blog friendly words to my cook who was supposed to reduce the sauce he finally got it going. I started plating up, calling for things like a surgeon.
I look at the clock while slicing the meat and think,” I’m not going make it.” And now I get the shakes. I don’t care who you are. Every chef starts to get the shakes when they start plating at a competition. For some reason you just can’t control your hands. It must be all the adrenaline. I grab the (finally finished) sauce, sauce the plate, and garnish. I have six plates that need to go out to the judging area. As I set down the last plate on my station I hear “TIME!” I literally made it by a half a second. I walk back into the room, look at one of my cooks and we simultaneously let out a “WHOOO!!!” Then we got the best feeling ever…we did it!
How’d we do?
After all the craziness, the running and the judging, we were awarded with 1st, 2nd, 3rd place medals. Not bad considering there was twice as much competition as last year. We ended the night with some much-needed relaxation and a nice glass of Jameson and ginger ale.
Ahh… the taste of victory. Next year, we’re making a salad! Ha!
Read more about this year’s event here.