Sunday, June 5, 2011

In the kitchen....Competition sizzles at Wind Creek resort

Chef Johnnie Taylor competes in the Culinary Masters Competition recently at the Wind Creek Casino & Hotel in Atmo­re.
Chef Johnnie Taylor competes in the Culinary Masters Competition recently at the Wind Creek Casino & Hotel in Atmo­re. / In the kitchen

ATMORE -- Chef Rita Wil­liams kept her eyes away from the huge clock front and center at one end of the kitchen, propped against a group of gleaming trophies and surrounded by medals.
Her mission: create a stuffed chicken breast with tomato couli sauce, Mediter­ranean rice, broccoli florets and julienne carrots -- trying to elevate her dish above the efforts of 17 fellow chefs.
With seconds left, she placed a final garnish and prepared to face the stoic panel of renowned chefs sit­ting at the counter, who would examine, taste and then pick her meal apart as she listened.
But this was not New York or L.A.
This was Atmore, Ala.
The Cooking Studio at Wind Creek Casino & Hotel recently hosted its first culi­nary competition, the "Mas­ter Chef's Challenge," draw­ing esteemed judges from across the country as well as competitors from as far away as Texas and South Carolina. The cooking studio is just one component of the hotel/casino/spa complex owned by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians on its land in Atmore.
In the culinary world, this is becoming a place to be reckoned with, said Chef Stafford DeCambra, head chef at Wind Creek and the Poarch-owned Creek Casino gaming facilities in Wetump­ka and Montgomery. DeCam­bra is no stranger to high-end cooking contests, having won more than 60 American Culi­nary Federation Gold Medals and awards in competitions at both nationally and inter­national levels.

Reality off-screen

Chef bouts are glamorized by hugely popular shows such as Food Network's "Chopped" and Bravo's "Top Chef."
But real-life, American Culi­nary Federation-sanctioned contests like this one are ongo­ing in kitchens all over the U.S., DeCambra said. For these chefs, there was no audience of millions; the spectators were fellow chefs and a growing number of onlookers on the other side of the kitchen's ex­pansive glass wall.
The two-day event began with an evening "cold salon" contest, a challenging category that includes cakes, sculptures in ice and food, among others. (DeCambra competed, winning two gold medals and Best of Show with a Hawaiian-themed entry.)
 On the second day, it was all about poultry, one of nine divi­sions in Category K, also know as "Practical and Contempo­rary Hot-Food Cooking, Profes­sional," of the American Culi­nary Federation's competition manual.
The judges, four ACF-ap­proved internationally re­nowned adjudicators, scruti­nized every move as chefs worked in staggered shifts, one pulling a raw chicken out of re­frigeration as another, just across the workspace, artfully applied sauce to a quartet of completed plates -- one for each judge, all completed with­in an hour.

'A mix of nerves'

The first chef began at 7 a.m., and the final chef pres­ented her plate around 3:30 p.m.
They chopped, cut, braised, sauteed and created flashy flambe sauces, but everything started from scratch.
That's key, said DeCambra, who is also a well-known judge in the international culinary circuit.
Chefs began with the most basic of tasks, fabricating, or "cutting up," a whole chicken. That not-so-alluring job, if done to perfection, would account for five points on a 40-point scale.
"Once you can demonstrate all these basic skills, you can embellish and create dishes," he said.
Chefs hovering over cook­ware in the state-of-the-art kitchen (ovens, ranges and cooktops by Subzero-Wolf) weren't just thinking about prizes.
"They enjoy this type of competition," DeCambra said, emphasizing the contest's aim to elevate the skill level among chefs. "They get a better un­derstanding of themselves, the level they're at and how they can better themselves as chefs."
Sous Chef Leotis Williams of Wind Creek was part of the 7 a.m. group. By mid-morning, this retired chef's son was hap­py to have finished his first competition. He'd practiced his entry -- stuffed chicken breast with Morrocan sauce, mashed sweet potatoes and mixed veg­etables -- time and again.
What he didn't expect was the addition of a "mix of nerves." At one point, with four pairs of expert eyes bearing down, he felt claustrophobic, like the walls were closing in. It was almost a relief to face the judges after their tasting.
"My sauce was a bit too spi­cy," he said of their appraisal. "My mashed potatoes didn't turn out just like I like them. But I was more critical of my­self."Most competing chefs had the same outlook. Critiques were more welcome than praise.
Evans, who'd won a bronze for his cake in the cold salon event, said it's best to be hyper-aware.
"I knew my sauce was bro­ken. When they ask, 'What would you have done better?' and you tell them right off the bat, their critique is less harsh," said Evans, a student at Kaiser University in Florida, who's hoping for an externship at North Carolina's famed Bilt­more Estate. "You take in what they tell you, and you can't take it disrespectfully because they are trying to make you a better chef."
After competing, Evans spent the day behind the glass, taking in the action. Occasion­ally, spectators noted a compet­itors' shaking hands, superb knife skills, sauce wizardry or down-to-the-wire performance.
Donnah Baptist, one of the event's organizers, witnessed the comings and goings of chefs all day long. The frayed nerves were almost palpable.
"It's grueling," Baptist said. "If you ever see a chef walk in the kitchen and they're not ner­vous, they don't care. The ones that you see that are really ner­vous, cooking with passion and heart, that's a good thing."
For DeCambra, this was a milestone, an inaugural event that he hopes will be followed by more competitions, bringing even more out-of-state partici­pants to south Alabama.
"I'm impressed," he said. "These are going to be the fu­ture leaders that are going to replace me. I'm so proud these guys are here, putting it on the line and saying, 'Evaluate my cooking.' I think it's fantastic."

No comments:

Post a Comment