A menu featuring the bounty of the West Coast’s peak-season summer foods earned Oregon Coast Culinary Institute’s (OCCI) student team the title of National Champions at the 2021 ACF Student Team of the Year competition.
Coached by OCCI’s Executive Director Chef Randy Torres, CEC, AAC, the long hours of practice paid off for team members Catherine Brown (co-captain), Katherine Duncan, Carter Philbrick, Brayden Saranto, Elena Smith (co-captain), and Shane Wilder.
To make the cut for the team, students undergo a rigorous vetting process within the first four weeks of the school year. Consideration is given to performance in class regarding attendance, grades, and instructor feedback. At the tryout, an interview determines whether the competitor has the right attitude.
“You learn a lot about yourself and what you can handle,” says team co-captain Catherine Brown. “It’s long hours and you have to be patient with yourself and patient with people on the team who you’ve never worked with before.”
Real Life is a Competition
Some in the industry think competition is not applicable to real life, but Chef Torres disagrees. “I believe 100% that competition is the true form of teaching,” he says. “In real life, every day is a competition: We’re competing with people for jobs; if you’re a business, you’re competing with other businesses for patrons.”
Chef Torres’ coaching technique helps students build useful life skills, like how to perform in a job interview, for example. He says to his team: “You approach that interview like a competition. How are you going to wow them?”
When it comes to mastering culinary skills like classical knife cuts, competition raises the bar and skills are intensified. A student may learn a Tournée in class, get a few chances to work on it, and then they move on. But in competition, the competitor must keep working until the skill is mastered.
Getting to Gold
This year’s student team competition was different than in years past. Because of COVID, the regional competitions were canceled. The regionals help competitors to get a feeling for cooking outside their usual environments.
Whether practicing in a home kitchen or at the school, it’s easy to get comfortable and over-confident in one’s abilities. And the time commitment to join the student team can be extremely taxing. There is a minimum of two to three practices a week, which can last up to four hours each. These must be done early in the mornings or late afternoons to accommodate schedules for classes, jobs, and family life.
“The most challenging thing about being part of the student team was learning how best to work with everyone,” says team co-captain Elena Smith. “We had 6 people on the team, each with their own work style. We had to learn the most efficient way to get everything done without stepping on each other’s toes. Not to mention working with everyone’s work and school schedules to find times to practice.”
A major hurdle, according to Chef Torres, is the unknown. Competitors need to be taken out of their comfort zones to become more agile. During the competition, any number of issues can arise.
Prior to the national competition, the OCCI team practiced in Daytona Beach to work out the bugs in a new environment. “It was ugly,” says Chef Torres, but that’s usually how the first run in a new kitchen with unfamiliar equipment goes. Then at the national competition, the team’s freezer wasn’t holding temperature. Each of these little hiccups requires the team to pivot in unison. Overall, the OCCI team overcame every obstacle.
“We had to figure out how to reconstruct some of our plates in the middle of the competition,” says Brown.
“We created our good luck with a lot of hard work,” Chef Torres says of the OCCI team.
Competition Begets Benefits
For students who rise to the challenge of joining a student team, the hard work pays off in future dividends. “Your skills will improve at an astounding rate and the thrill of actually competing is incredible,” says Smith.
Chefs want student competitors as employees because they know that student competitors are cool under pressure, have time management skills, and are devoted to their craft.
“Competition teaches you how to manage yourself,” says Brown. “As a co-captain, I learned how to manage people to get things done in a timely manner.”
After the competition, Chef Torres’ student competitors were able to attend the ACF National Convention and network with more senior chefs and exchange business cards. “By competing, you get a true sense of how to grow yourself,” he says. “You can’t put a price tag on that.”
OCCI’s Winning Menu:
Appetizer: Sautéed wild salmon with a citrus herb crust and crab essence cream sauce, summer succotash, tart apple & curried Dungeness crab, bacon belly fritter. Petite herbs with cucumbers, charred lemon vinaigrette.
Salad: Variety of seasoned tomatoes, strawberry tomato bavarois, tomato granita. Goat cheese mousse, avocado puree, crispy quinoa. Tender greens tossed in red wine vinaigrette.
Main: Roasted coffee crusted Colorado lamb short loin, multi-tiered potato accompanied with stout ragù, a duo of parsnip puree and obliques tossed with hazelnuts and brown butter. Brussels sprouts with mustard and cranberry, summer chanterelles. Reduction of natural juices.
Dessert: Peach mousse, filled with raspberry gel and crispy white chocolate layer on a shortbread cookie. Bourbon glazed peach, lemon curd, peach pâté de fruit. Fizzy raspberry, quenelle of peach ice cream with raspberry sorbet and raspberry sauce.