April 25, 2003

Students Compete for 'Iron Chef' Title

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Seven teams and four judges came together at the Statler Kitchen Laboratory yesterday afternoon for the first annual “Iron Chef” competition between graduate schools at Cornell. The event featured an unusual main ingredient — ostrich.

After the teams presented their dishes, all of which included ostrich, the results were tallied. Team four, “Ryan’s Angels,” representing the Johnson Graduate School of Management, was announced the winner amidst a flurry of applause from all the competitors and spectators. The team was presented with a trophy made from a small, shiny saucepan bolted to a piece of butcher block with a ladle inside.

“Ryan’s Angels”‘ winning dish consisted of three courses described as “Asian fusion” cuisine on the distributed menu. Their success left the team leader, Ryan Folger JGSM ’04, “shocked and surprised.” One of his teammates, Joanne Wall JGSM ’04, said that she “didn’t expect to win, given the tough competition from the hotel school, but as a team we pulled it together.”

The rest of the quartet was made up of Alison Reichert JGSM ’04 and Annie Oh JGSM ’04.

Overall, four of the teams were from the JGSM, while the other three represented the hotel school. Each of the teams was made up of four members. They all gathered just before 5 p.m. to get their instructions from the event coordinator, Alex Tse ’97, before the cooking began.

Each team was allowed use of any of the communal ingredients provided for the event. These supplies included a wide variety of fresh vegetables and herbs and common pantry stock items such as bacon, chicken, cheeses, pastas and red wine. In addition, teams were allowed to bring up to $25 of their own ingredients. They were each provided with chef’s whites and a cooking station that contained all the necessary tools and utensils to enact their culinary creations.

The competition was almost exactly like the cult Iron Chef television program often shown late at night on the Food Network. The only changes were that the teams were notified of the main ingredient three days in advance, and the cooking time was expanded to two hours from the TV show’s one.

Tse incorporated many details from the show, including the music at the beginning and end of the program, which he played from a laptop and speakers set up in the middle of the kitchen.

The teams were judged in four categories: presentation, taste, originality and cleanliness. One of the judges was Mike Washburn, executive sous chef at Wegmans of Ithaca. Before the competition began, he said he would be “observing cleanliness and organization while cooking, though tasting [would] determine a lot.”

Washburn earned his gastronomic expertise through many years in the industry following his degree from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Most recently, he owned the Bull Moose Bistro in Red Lodge, Mo., before moving to Ithaca a few months ago.

Another judge was Dano Hutnik, former proprietor of Dano’s in Ithaca, who is currently building a new restaurant outside the city on Cayuga Lake. Though he had never cooked with ostrich in any of his restaurants, he “ate it about four or five years ago, when ostrich was the thing on menus.” Hutnik noted that “it never really caught on, kind of like bear, elk and kangaroo,” despite being “a very healthy lean meat with no cholesterol.”

The other two judges were Dean of Students Kent Hubbell ’69 and Ken Cowlan, owner of the Lite 97.3 radio station. When he first entered the kitchen, Cowlan noticed that he aroma [was] overwhelming.”

“Even if you weren’t hungry when you came in here, you’d work up an appetite fast,” he added.

The time allotted for cooking went by very quickly. Most teams spent the better part of the first hour preparing their ingredients by chopping vegetables, reducing stocks and tenderizing the ostrich meat. Some teams deep-fried vegetables and flatbreads to use in their presentation, while others used their broilers to roast peppers, brown puff pastry or candy almonds.

The organizational techniques ran the gambit. Some teams arrived with typed gameplans broken down by team member, while others were heard volunteering to take on a particular task ad hoc as the team leader announced what needed to be done. Most teams did not begin plating their meals until the last few minutes of competition. As time was called, however, the long table that once held all the communal ingredients was filled with impressive offerings from each of the seven teams.

The first team to present its menu was “Team Hotel School Graduate Year Two,” which had an interesting centerpiece. While they prepared their menu, they heated a large, flat stone in the oven. That stone was then oiled and used to cook strips of marinated ostrich on the presentation table right before the judges. The ostrich was then added to lettuce leaves with a tomato-based sauce and bean sprouts, among other vegetables.

The second team to present its menu to the judges, “The Bawachis,” which is Hindi for “The Chefs,” offered a trio of dishes to the four judges. An Indian theme was present throughout their courses of caramelized walnut and ostrich salad, ostrich puri and ostrich saag.

Next came the dishes from the third team, which also represented the hotel school. They offered ostrich roulade, ostrich wellington with caramelized carrots and potatoes au gratin and a grilled ostrich salad.

The winning team, “Ryan’s Angels,” presented fourth with its menu of ostrich rice-paper rolls with Vietnamese dipping sauce, followed by tangy, poppy seed salad with warmed ostrich and finally shafis ostrich curry.

Fifth, the team “Not-So-Naked Chef” presented one of its dishes in a hollowed-out half-pineapple. Their cuisine also featured an Asian theme. The pineapple curry dish was of Polynesian origin, which joined the Japanese- and Thai-inspired dishes on their menu.

The last team from the JGSM to present their menu was “Team Chicken Livers.” Their menu started with ostrich sushi, continued with ostrich won ton soup and finished with the only dessert offering of the competition — assorted skewers with mole sauce.

The seventh team was called “Thursday Night Poker,” and spoke a lot of French throughout the competition. Their five items included an ostrich tartare that was paired with a citrus sauce and several julienned vegetables.

Once the menus were presented to the judges, competitors each took a glass of wine and fork around to taste their competitors’ dishes. Compliments abounded and the dishes disappeared while the judges carefully savored the portions reserved for them.

Though the event only included two of Cornell’s graduate schools this year, Tse hopes it will expand in the future.

“The idea is to make it a competition with one team from each of the graduate programs to promote integration across Cornell graduate programs,” he said. “We also want to make it a charity event with a more festive atmosphere.”

While it might appear that hotel students would have an advantage in a cooking competition over their business school counterparts, most of the JGSM students turned out to be avid cooks. Many of them are members of Cook with Books, the Johnson School cooking club founded by Tara Fallon JGSM ’04. “We’re a first-year club, and we’ve had prix fixe dinners at local restaurants where we got to talk to the chefs, as well as large potluck dinners with the Johnson Wine Club,” she said.

All of the competitors seemed to enjoy their experience. Some offered things that they learned: “You should never be on a team with your boyfriend, but it was great overall,” said Lesley Oakes JGSM ’04.

When Carroll Rheem grad was asked how she felt about her hotel school students being defeated by a team from the JGSM, she said, “It’s not about winning or losing. This was my first live cooking competition, and I reall
y enjoyed it. I was surprised by how fast it went. There’s always next year, too.”

The inspiration for the winning dishes from “Ryan’s Angels” came largely from Wall’s experiences living in Hong Kong for five years. It made for an “East meets West cuisine,” she said.

According to Folger, though, the element that separated them from the other Asian-inspired menus in the competition was the “poppy seed salad dressing, which, of course was my mom’s recipe.”

The event was sponsored by the School of Hotel Administration, the Hotel Graduate Student Organization and the Johnson Graduate School of Management Student Council. The food was donated by Wegmans of Ithaca, and the wine was donated by Stephen Germano grad.

Archived article by Tony Apuzzo