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Destined for Greatness . . . Or at least the Food Network



The Dining Room at Kendall College

2408 Orrington, Evanston 847-448-2399

Lunch, Monday-Friday, noon-1:30 PM. Dinner, Tuesday-Friday, 6-8 PM, and Saturday, 6-8:30 PM.

As its name suggests, the Almost Famous Chef Competition, sponsored by the sparkling-water company S. Pellegrino, is concerned with more than its contestants' culinary prowess. They're also evaluated for "potential star quality," according to the program overview I received before judging a local round of the contest last month at Kendall College's School of Culinary Arts in Evanston. The contest winner "will be coached by a public relations team on how to promote and conduct themselves with the media." In other words, these contestants want to be more than good chefs; they want to be celebrity chefs like contest judges Charlie Palmer (Aureole), Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken (hosts of Two Hot Tamales, a cooking show on the Food Network), and Roland Liccioni (Les Nomades and Le Lan). "We want somebody who can interact with people and get along," says Manejah Morad Terzi, a PR rep for Pellegrino. "It adds a different twist to things; it's not so square."

The contest, which is in its third year, takes place over three weeks. Out of 45 total contestants, 6--each representing a different culinary school--go on to the finals, held October 14-17 at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. The winnings include a trip to Italy to participate in a yet-to-be-determined culinary program. But perhaps the most valuable prize is the connections the contestants can make. It's not often that a culinary student gets his work critiqued by someone like Palmer or Liccioni. The winner from the first Almost Famous contest, Joncarl Lachman, went on to work at New York's Inside restaurant with Anne Rosenzweig, and his recipes have appeared in Wine X magazine. Last year's winner, Felicia Shallow Davis, a former Chicago cop, teaches at Kendall now. Her fame has been limited to stories about last year's contest. But even "that kind of exposure is hard to come by," says Terzi.

There were nine contestants at Kendall last month, all handpicked by their instructors. The panel of judges included six chefs (Liccioni, Jimmy Banos, Sandro Gamba, Jean Joho, Paul Kahan, and Michael Maddox), three journalists (me, Steve Edwards, and Vince Gerasole), and two restaurant-biz people (Don Newcomb of ChicaGourmets and Brent Frei, media director at the American Culinary Federation).

Each student was given two hours to prepare one original dish of their choosing. "Ask them questions," Christopher Koetke, Kendall's associate dean of culinary arts, urged the judges. "Chefs are increasingly being called on to present themselves both to customers and to the media. They have to be able to articulate." (His perfectly sound-bite-friendly diction suggested he'd had some serious media training himself.) The judges roamed, clipboards in hand, observing, probing, and scoring. First we were to assess the students' kitchen skills (including sanitary food handling, proper use and arrangement of ingredients, proper cooking technique, and meeting the time limit).

Alicia Obertin, a food-and-beverage management major who hopes to open her own bakery, quickly peeled carrots, destemmed shiitakes, and diced shallots for her risotto Milanese. "Do you know how many kinds of rice can be used in risotto?" Chef Joho asked her in his French-accented English. "Well, I use arborio," she said. "But do you know what the others are?" he shot back. She was silent. Joho told her that carnaroli is the best one to use, but it's produced only in good years. (Rice production, like wine making, depends on favorable weather conditions.) "How long are you planning on cooking that risotto?" he asked. "About an hour or so." Wrong again. "Eighteen minutes is all you'll need," he said before moving on to the next student.

At station number two, Dan Grajdura, a food-and-beverage operations major, had stock simmering in one pot and onions sauteing in another. He popped a tray of grated Parmesan into the oven and set his timer. He was filleting a whole halibut when the timer went off. Out of the oven he pulled a completely charred pan of what were supposed to be cheese crisps. Sheepishly he slid the tray under his workstation, grabbed another pan, and tried again. Later, when his final dish came out for tasting, the cheese crisps were nowhere to be seen--the second pan had burned as well.

Half an hour later Hal Rubin, a former T.G.I. Friday's waiter, was dropping tempura-battered sweet potatoes into a deep fryer one by one; Mark Newman, who got his associate's degree in June, was roasting pistachios and oats for a crust; Obertin started adding stock to her arborio rice; and Autumn Tsang, a timid 19-year-old, was searing a venison loin. Meanwhile Grant Carey, a senior culinary arts major and Food Network addict, was still just getting started, unwrapping and cleaning four Muscovy ducks for his pan-seared duck breast with tamarind-soy glaze.

As we got ready to taste the first round of dishes, there was a problem. Contestant Sharon Grandy wasn't quite ready. Her skate wing was breaded and already sauteing, but "there's no way I can plate this in time," she admitted. Koetke told her she'd have to serve her dish last. Grandy shrugged and dropped out of the competition. She knew the fish wouldn't hold up.

One at a time the tense-looking contestants presented their final dishes, while assistants served us individual tasting plates of each. We graded every dish on details like presentation, portion size, nutritional balance, creativity, practicality, flavor, texture, and degree of doneness. Grajdura's halibut fillet with saffron risotto and tomato confit was properly cooked but not spectacular-tasting. Jill Houk's chicken breast with plum barbecue sauce, brown rice pilaf, and glazed baby carrots was slightly overcooked yet not served hot enough. Tsang's very professional loin of venison with black currant sauce, couscous, and green beans would be at home on a restaurant menu. Newman's herbed gnocchi and oat-and-pistachio-crusted Hawaiian monchong (a whitefish similar to tuna) with sauteed vegetables and carrot-pomegranate sauce, served piping hot, struck a perfect balance of sweet and salty, chewy and crunchy.

Next Koetke told us to consider the students' personalities, their ability to withstand pressure, and their comfort in front of the camera--that elusive star quality.

Finally the nine contestants gathered at the front of the school's demonstration kitchen. Koetke thanked them for participating. Then he said, "And the one who's off to Las Vegas next month is...Mark Newman." Everyone cheered. "I never thought this was going to happen," said Newman. "This is great." (See? Star quality!)

In Vegas, Newman will compete in three categories: an Iron Chef-style mystery-ingredient round, a signature dish, and a "people's choice" dish, judged by the event's attendees--industry types, journalists, and foodies who pay $199 for three days' worth of events or $40 for just the tasting gala. (Tickets are still available; call 312-787-9580 and ask for Vanessa Luna.)

Kendall's Culinary Institute is moving from Evanston to Chicago (900 N. North Branch) in January. In the meantime, the school has two restaurants open to the public: a casual cafeteria and a fancier dining room. Reservations to the latter are required. None of this year's Almost Famous contestants cooks at either of them, but many of their classmates do. Mark Newman starts work as a line cook at MK this week.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.

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