Culinary Students Vie for Chance of a Lifetime

Winners will work in an Emeril restaurant

by Diane Stoneback; photos by Brian Shaud and Patricia Canavan,

Six Northampton Community College culinary students and one graduate recently went from a slow simmer to a full rolling boil in their efforts to win one of three all-expenses-paid, week-long trips to work in Chef Emeril Lagasse's three New Orleans restaurants.

From 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. May 20, Clarissa Adorno, Julia Craig, Cody Dally, Evan Hallman, Randy Marange, Daniel Noonan and Jaclyn Van Billiard tackled "Mystery Trays" of ingredients for use in preparing four-course dinners for three eagle-eyed judges including Chef Shawn Doyle of the Savory Grille and chefs Stacy Calles and Louis Bates of The Sands. 

Although the competition has ended, the tension continues for competitors until Chef Emeril announces the three winners following his June 3 cooking demo at the annual Lehigh Valley Food and Wine Festival at the Sands.

The young competitors, selected for their essays and skills from a field of 27 applicants, plunged headlong into a real pressure cooker of a contest. Other than briefly examining the mystery tray ingredients and creating a menu of dishes to be made from them, the cooks were in constant motion at ever-increasing speeds.

In the contest's final stages, their knives glistened like flashes of lightning as they chopped, and their whisks moved as fast as the beaters on electric mixers. They also dashed through the kitchen, running at full speed, to meet their deadlines of producing an appetizer by 11:15 a.m., salad by 11:45 a.m., entrée by 12:30 and dessert by 1 p.m.

Their success was amazing, considering they had no idea what 15 ingredients they'd find on the mystery trays and faced further mysteries just identifying some of those ingredients. Among the most baffling were fresh turmeric root (resembling ginger root), lovage (a leafy green that tastes like celery), wheat berries (whole grains taking more than an hour to cook) and chayote squash (known as mirliton in the Deep South). 

They worked against time from the very start, using the first two hours and 15 minutes of the morning for their mise en place, that is, gathering and prepping all ingredients to be ready for the courses to come.  With no convenience foods allowed, that meant plenty of peeling, slicing and dicing from scratch, as well as cutting up a whole duck and shucking a dozen oysters. 

Timers rang repeatedly and the clock stopped for no one. Chef Sue Roth, NCC associate professor and culinary program coordinator who composed the mystery trays, outlined the rules. 

The dessert course had to include a baked element. Equipment (like the two ice cream makers) had to be shared. 

Cell phone use was permitted only to identify ingredients and find recipes.

Recipe cards also could be used. 

Points would be deducted for each missed deadline.

Chef Sue, a local legend in her own right for winning seven Iron Chef-style, mystery tray competitions at the Allentown Fair, also served as the culinary version of a town crier for the harried cooks. Calling out times before each approaching deadline, she included final minute-by-minute countdowns before dishes had to be presented to judges assembled in the college's Hampton Winds dining room.

While pots and pans banged and dishes clattered, the three judges also prowled the kitchen to see if students used appropriate knife skills and culinary techniques and kept their food prep areas clean and tidy while working. Those observations were combined with scoring the students' dishes based on taste, creativity and presentation.

Preparing for the contest was difficult, considering major ingredients were unknown. Nevertheless, the young cooks followed basics like having a plan for easily-modified desserts and boning up on basics like breaking down whole fish, meat or poultry items. Some also skimmed cookbooks, surfed the internet and sought inspiration from their favorite food shows. They also were warned to expect at least a few decidedly Southern ingredients, given their goal of winning trips to New Orleans.

Though battling a lack of sleep and ample anxiety, the competitors' finished dishes looked good and featured some variations on classic New Orleans foods including Oysters Rockefeller, Dirty Rice, Duck and Andouille Gumbo, Sautéed Duck Breast with Cajun Seasonings and Bananas Foster Cheesecake with a Pecan Crust.

Although the two-week wait to learn who won will be stressful, Hallman voiced a common sentiment, "It's all worth it for the chance of winning the competition and working at Emeril's restaurants. Having that on our résumés means we should not have to worry about getting a job anywhere."

Wine CompetitionThe previous day, hospitality management students displayed sophisticated wine skills, competing for the opportunity to work alongside chefs, sommeliers and restaurant managers in three of Lagasse's restaurants.  The contestants -- Lori Bloch, Lorynn Foti, David Goldman and Kirsten Priestas -- were all old enough to serve alcoholic beverages, and knew their way among reds and whites. They moved from station to station, demonstrating their ability to read labels and serve wine professionally, identify wine through blind tastings, pair food and wine, and speak knowledgeably about grape varietals and wine trends. They were judged on their professionalism, preparedness and knowledge.  Like the culinary contestants, the winner of the wine competition will have the opportunity for an all-expenses-paid externship at Emeril's New Orleans restaurants. The externship is being made possible through the generosity of Chris and Diane Martin.

Check out photos of the competitions in this gallery.