April 01, 2014
Chef-in-Residence Ernest Servantes demonstrated his creative take on Tex-Mex cuisine at a demonstration at Northampton Community College on March 31
Chef Ernest Servantes entertained and enlightened Northampton Community College (NCC) culinary arts students and community members with a cooking demonstration on March 31. As the Robert C. Wood Chef-in-Residence, he also prepared a multi-course dinner to benefit the foundation on April 1.
A Texas State University and Culinary Institute of America graduate, Servantes grew up observing and learning his way around the kitchen at his grandmother's tamale restaurant. As a teen, he learned to grill his way to wins at local barbeque competitions while also starting at the bottom in the restaurant industry, eventually working his way up to a team leader and corporate trainer for Outback Steakhouse. Following the completion of his education, he worked as a sous chef before taking on his role with Sodexo and TLU, where he's been for seven years. He spends the weekends running his own catering business, Burnt Bean BBQ Company and is a member of the Texas Chef Association Culinary Federation and the World Association of Chef Societies.
When casting directors of Chopped became interested in finding a contestant among the pit masters of Texas's statewide competitions, Servantes was persuaded by his peers to interview for the show. Originally one of 1,500 applicants, he started with 16 chefs and continued for a month, with the winners of the first four episodes competing against each other in the grand finale for a $50,000 prize. Servantes was in the open fire, outdoors competition, which is basically a grilling contest. Following his win, Servantes spent part of 2013 traveling to various colleges with Sodexo's Signature Chef program. He has also since been featured on Destination America's BBQ Pit Masters. On Chopped, contestants open a mystery basket of seemingly incompatible ingredients and have to create a coherent dish out of them. Servantes discovered fresh sardines, sloppy Joe mix, Mexican cough syrup, and green corn in his basket.
For the cooking demonstration at NCC, the chef prepared three appetizers-Texas bruschetta, shrimp campechana and chicken tinga sopes. The Tex-Mex twist came in Servantes' imaginative interpretations, such as toasted pecans added to bruschetta and mandarin orange soda squirted into the cocktail-like shrimp campechina.
His principles of Tex-Mex cooking are his foundation. "Mexican cuisine has layers of flavor," he said. "There is no star of the show. All components work together as a team." He also said that Mexican food is all about fresh flavors and vibrant colors. Servantes had a lot to say about peppers, of which he uses a vast variety. Poblano, he said, is the mildest.
Servantes began his career by washing pots and pans in his grandmother's restaurant kitchen. He advised students that no matter where they start, they should learn and look while they work. "Start at the bottom and learn. Be a sponge," he said. Many of his dishes have their basis in his grandmother's cooking, and he urged students to learn traditional culinary crafts from older relatives, whose expertise may be lost as we increasingly become convenience-food eaters. "Talk to your grandparents and pick up recipes for comfort foods," he said. From his grandparents, the chef learned to smoke and cure fresh meat and make homemade sausage. Now, his favorite food experience is eating at people's homes rather than restaurants, enjoying a family's take on various dishes. What is Servants known for cooking at home? Grilled cheese, his wife's favorite.
The chef's presentation was spiced with humor. About the herb cilantro, he said. "It is like Kim Kardashian. Either you love it or hate it." "Chefs are a different breed. We are crazy, love the thrill of competition, we're arrogant, and we work in 110-degree heat." He recalled his surprise when he ordered fried grasshoppers in Mexico, and the chef's 10-year-old daughter went out into the grass with a net.
So, what did Chef Servantes harmonize out of the cacophony of the Chopped mystery basket? "I poached the sardines and then grilled them in chili lime butter. Somehow, he fit all the other discordant ingredients in and won the final round.
The twice-a-year Robert C. Wood Chef in Residence program is underwritten through the Wood Company Endowment within the NCC Foundation.
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