by Jocelyn Tolbert
At Cook. Craft. Create. in July, one student from each of the four regions will compete to become ACF’s Student Chef of the Year. Southeast Region Student Chef of the Year Tien Tran graduated from the Art Institute of Atlanta in December 2017, earning his Bachelor’s Degree in Culinary Arts Management — and a 3.8 GPA. He was promoted to Sous Chef at Serpas True Food in Atlanta after working there for just seven months, and once cooked at the James Beard House’s Thanksgiving dinner. We talked to Tran about his Regionals win and how he’s preparing for the Convention competitions.
What was the regional championship like for you? How did it feel to win?
It was an amazing feeling that nothing can be compared with. To be honest, I did not expect to be the winner as I made many mistakes but when my name was called, I was stunned for a second until I realized that I will be going to New Orleans In July.
How are you preparing for the Convention competitions?
Most of the time I would spend practicing at school along with my coach and my advisors. I also did research on recipes and did many trial-and- errors on them to pick out the best element for my plate. I also practiced on the core, classical cooking skills along with modern technical skills.
Had you ever done any cooking competitions before this experience?
Prior to this competition I have done a few local and school competitions, but the Student Chef of the Year competition from the ACF was my first competition on a larger scale. And dare I say it was the most exciting one.
Has anything unexpected ever happened to you during a competition? What did you do to get through it? How did it turn out in the end?
One thing that happened during the competition was the oven was way off, though the host said that it was calibrated. I took the temperature in the beginning and it was fine. [In] the last 15 minutes, the oven dropped by 50 degrees Fahrenheit as opposed to what it was set at. It led to my tuile not being correctly done. There was not else to do beside cutting the soft part of the tuile out and use only the crunchier part, but it did not hold.
What impact do you think this award will have on your life? Has it already had an impact?
I was lucky to get have an interview with a chef who was the runner-up for Chef of the Year in 2013 and was on the student team as well. He told me that by doing competition, he has advanced much faster in his career as opposed to those who did not. I, too, feel the same. It was an amazing learning experience, even when I was practicing for the competition. Those experiences are not available just everywhere. Getting feedback from the judges and watching other people perform — it was a blast to look at all these passionate people pulling their all to be the best.
It has also impacted my career as I was offered many opportunities to work with many of the top culinarian people in the industry. Many people have reached out to me and offered to work with and mentor me along the way.
What’s been the best advice you’ve gotten as a culinary student?
The head of culinary department at my school told me this before I did my competition: “Have fun!” It got to me and relaxed me before the competition. I forgot that the whole point of me started cooking was to have fun and enjoy the experience. [It helped] me calm down a lot.
What advice would you give to other aspiring chefs?
I would just say the same: “Have fun.” It is such a simple thing to say but many people forget that part. I remember the saying, “If you do what you love, you will not have to work a single say in your life.” The kitchen is hard and hot. It is better to just have fun and enjoy it while it lasts.
What’s an average day for you like?
Besides going to school, I would go to work. After finishing, I would like to relax by watching TV and playing a game. Sometimes I will test out a new recipe or just look at a new way to upgrade an old, classic, traditional plate. I also often go to supermarkets, Asian markets and farmer markets, [because ] I want to stay up-to-date with pricing and find out what is in season.
What’s the first thing you do when you get to work or school? Tell us a little about that.
The first thing I do when I get to work or school is say hi to everyone that I know. I think it is a warm, polite gesture, just to show that I acknowledge them.
What’s the last thing you do before you go home in the evening?
The last thing I do before going home is to double-check everything, make sure all equipment is off, the floor is clean and the set-up is ready for the next day. It is [part of] my job duties, so I am responsible for doing that, but it is a good habit to develop over time.
What was the worst thing that happened to you this week?
Nothing bad has happened. There was bad moment, but it led to a better situation.
What was the best thing that happened to you this week?
I got many job offers from many different top chefs right now in Georgia that would love to work with me. So, I got that going for me which is nice.
At Cook. Craft. Create. in New Orleans July 15-19, four students will compete to become ACF’s Student Chef of the Year. The national convention will feature additional educational and engagement opportunities that will build off the ChefConnect series and will provide a revitalizing experience for members, foodservice professionals, students and competitors. All the while igniting innovation that attendees can bring back to their classroom, employees or kitchen! We hope to see you there!