Students at Daley Plaza – COUNTRY Financial Challenge Begins

July 14, 2011 at 6:13 pm

Rob Gardner

Although I found myself at Daley Plaza today as a judge of students, I felt a bit of a student too.  My friends at COUNTRY Financial, [ed. don’t you dare spell it any other way!], the primary sponsor of Chicago’s farmer’s markets, invited me to participate again in their annual Chef Challenge.  Students of this blog may remember that the COUNTRY Chef Challenge consists of  a having 3 area chefs shop the Daley Plaza market and then cook a delicious dish from their pickins’, Iron Chef style.  Or, it is Iron Chef where you get to go buy yourown secret ingredients?   Two years ago, I sat on the panel, with, I believe, Steve Baskerville and Marty Lennert, noted locavores both.  The COUNTRY Chef challenge, with me and other yet to be determined judges, will occur this  year on Thursday, August 4, but in advance of that event, COUNTRY dished out a new challenge.  Culinary students from Chicago’s Cordon Bleu Academy would engage in battle on consecutive Thursdays, today and next, July 21.  The winner of this competition would then be one of the judges for the August 4 Challenge. I was also asked to judge these preliminary contests.  I learned quite a bit on my first day judging.

I learned, not first, I learned first some culinary terms I’ll get back to , I learned that being a chef student seemed oddly militaristic, I learned, most importantly that none of the chef students read this site.  After all, I was tasked with banter, and in banter I asked if anyone knew what distinguished the potatoes in front of them.  Potatoes, I had learned, were to be turned into a seven sided, oblong creation called a tournee, the cut picked by the drill sergeant because, I learned, it would be difficult.  I learned, I should add, that tournee-ing a potato wastes pretty much the whole potato.  Potatoes, I’m trying to say, these students had no idea.  What was the potato I asked.  “Waxy”.   “Red”  None of them read last week’s Local Calendar to know these were true NEW potatoes, distinguished, especially, by their pockmarked skin.  Come on guys, eat seasonal.

I learned, did you know, that terms like julienne have very specific, dimensional standards.  2 x 2 x 8.  Say it and they can execute it, I learned.  We tasked them, for the challenge, with cutting the seven side monster called the tournee; one potato tourneed.  We had them create a certain amount of julienne carrots, and because we did not want to spend all day in the sun, we had them slicing, instead of dicing, some onions.  Unfortunately, Top Chef fan that I am, there was no chicken breaking down component to this event.  Because I can eat and shop with the best of ‘em, but can not ever slice two things of equal size, ever (why, btw, I specialize in cole slaw), I was not asked to judge the technical aspects of the competition.  Instead, after their knife work, the students were to plate it all up, some berries and peaches also on hand to spruce up their plates.  I would pick the plate that looked the nicest, and my opinion would be added to points earned for cutting prowess–speed and accuracy.

I learned it is darn hard to pick a winner from three plates of raw vegetables inter-mixed with fresh fruit.  Sure the neatly slice onions made a nice bed for bright red raspberries, but could I get past the imagined flavor combination.  Plate one offered me, besides the nicely balanced raspberries, a flower of peach petals, well cut NEW potatoes and a sprinkling of carrot greens used as if it was an herb.  It was very well done, if a bit standard.  Plate three went for the opposite effect, a minimal plate, the cut fruits and vegetables artfully composed in a purely meaningless way, although I convinced myself it was in tribute to the recently deceased Cy Twombly.  The middle plate impressed me with some executed brunoise, showing off that tournee’s were child’s play to him, but his plate was not quite done up enough.  It came down to neat and regular or neat and arty, I decided, invested in judgeship, to go for the one that did not look like it came from the culinary handbook.  

Nathanial will be on hand next week to take on the winner of the next student challenge, and that winner, will sit with me in judgement of the paid chefs on August 4.  I look forward to learning more as I judge.