On Jan. 10, 2015, Salt Lake Community College’s Culinary Program participated in the “Chopped” competition at the South Towne Exposition Center. The event was hosted by “Top Chef”’s Katie Weinner.
The event featured four competitors, which include Chris Williams, Matt Nihipali, Donna Mills and Penny Laver. The judges promptly decided to pit the men against the women, inciting enthusiastic cheers from the audience. The event was modeled after the popular Food Network show titled “Chopped,” in which competitors are presented with a box of mystery ingredients and must cook a meal in the designated amount of time.
The students were given an hour and fifteen minutes to cook an appetizer and an entree. Chef Weinner listed off the secret ingredients in the competitors’ boxes, which consisted of spiral beets or “candy cane beets,” beef ribs, and blood orange. Both the judges and Weinner commented on how difficult the beef ribs would be to prepare and cook in such a short amount of time.
The competitors immediately dove into their chopping, slicing, and preheating.
“The first stage of cooking is always to find and organize all your equipment,” said Weinner.
The students moved quickly, their communication with each other clipped and concise. Weinner narrated each of the student chef’s moves to the audience while giving them passive guidance and occasionally chastising for crowded pans and cluttered cooking stations.
Throughout the competition Weinner provided cooking tips to the audience. Weinner emphasized the importance of cooking with new and interesting ingredients. However, for many new cooks cooking outside the box can be intimidating. SLCC’s Culinary Director Franco Aloia informed the audience that anyone can take cooking classes as long as they have completed the prerequisite of the “Save Serve” course and certification, which SLCC offers.
Both teams made a salad for their appetizer utilizing the beet greens and blood oranges. For the entrees the men presented their ribs along side caramelized fennel and Brussels sprouts with pepperoni. Typically, Brussels sprouts are cooked with bacon pieces, but upon discovering there was no bacon in the kitchen the men’s team improvised with pepperoni; a hit with the judges. The women’s team entree consisted of ribs, a potato and cauliflower, and a pomegranate, carrot, and apple juice caviar made using a process called spherification.
The judges criticized and commended both teams but ultimately awarded first prize to the men’s team.
“Both teams presented excellent meals, but forced to make a choice we think that the men’s meal would be more pallet pleasing,” said judge number one.
“I think the job market is promising for future chefs, [Chris] and I already have positions as Su Chefs with Copper Onion Catering,” said competitor Matt Nihipali.
SLCC’s culinary program has been established and evolving for 25 years, preparing students for a lucrative career in the highly diverse food industry. While SLCC’s culinary program is highly recommended by it’s students, both the contestants on the women’s team agreed that the program is lacking efficiency and an emphasis on food waste, a massive problem facing the western food industry.
“You can compost most food items and chickens will eat just about anything,” said Penny Laver.
Another way to help eliminate food waste and large carbon footprints created in producing food is to support stores and restaurants that source locally first and have programs in place to reduce or eliminate food waste. Mills and Laver suggested restaurants such as Forage located on 370 East and 900 South, which uses ingredients they find in the wild as well as local farms and ranches.
Utah also has stores that source locally, supporting local farmers and reducing transportation costs. Some of these stores include; The Store located on 2050 East and 6200 South and Liberty Heights Fresh located on 1290 South and 1100 East. With the heightened desire for customers to buy local, organic, and sustainably produced ingredients, lower prices and accessibility to these products is becoming more prevalent.
Photos by Michael R. Gault