Forget French fries. Sautéed chicken breast served with gouda and prosciutto – alongside a complicated pistachio mousseline – is on Laura Strunk’s menu.
The chef – who’s worked at the University of Notre Dame for more than seven years – is one of six finalists scheduled to concoct some fabulous food stuff this week in Toronto at the sixth annual Culinary Challenge of the National Association of College and University Food Services.
“I’d love to win,” gushes Strunk, who’s accustomed to overseeing a kitchen and catering staff that prepares thousands of meals per day. She and the other finalists competed in challenging regional college cooking contests to ultimately end up at what one participant calls "the college food showdown to end all college food showdowns."
Officials with the association say that the Fighting Irish chef may have an early advantage, since she has the largest contingent of fans who’ve registered at the event thus far. However, even with that abundance of fan support, the final voting will all come down to a select panel of judges who will decide a winner based on presentation, cutting skills and, of course, taste. The finalists will have to prepare their dishes in under 75 minutes with a bedazzled audience cheering them on.
Each year, the organization hosts the faceoff in an effort to draw attention to a variety of tasty dishes that university chefs are capable of preparing – and to highlight new trends in college kitchens nationwide.
“It gets pretty lively -- lots of fans from various schools come to support their finalist,” says Morgan Lucero, a spokeswoman with the association, who estimates that 1,100 college employees are attending the event this year.
If all of the chefs’ entrees taste like chicken at the Culinary Challenge this year, it should come as no surprise, since the contest is entirely chicken-themed (fear not – lamb, tenderloin and pork have all had their day in the oven). The thematic choice makes sense, says Strunk, since chicken tends to be the most popular fare for students, often in the form of nuggets or strips, served with honey mustard or ketchup.
“I hate to say it,” says Thomas J. Siegel, the executive chef at the University of Montana, and a finalist in the competition. “But chicken strip night is hard to beat.”
In contrast to nuggets, the chef will be preparing a lobster mushroom dusted chicken roulade of fig chutney for the competition. He says that there are economical ways to offer haute cuisine to students, noting that he’s served similar dishes with substitute ingredients, like mushroom powders, that can be made quickly for large numbers of consumers. His institution budgets approximately $6 million a year for food costs, which isn’t a whole lot of money, he says, to feed thousands of students each year. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t try to include a few ‘high ticket’ items,” says Siegel.
Lars Kronmark, a chef instructor with the Culinary Institute of America, notes that all is not fun in the world of food. Some campuses, he says, have seen student protests of eggs, red meat and some types of ocean fish in recent years. "Students are cautious about anything they perceive as being endangered," he says. He adds that organic fruits and vegetables are fast becoming the choice du jour among many students.
According to Kronmark, students' food sensitivity tends to increase the longer they're on campus and have opportunities to become more socially aware. "First-year students don't usually seem to care what they eat," he says. "Now, that could be changing, but I haven't seen it yet."
Siegel says the best way to deal with differing student tastes is to offer lots of options, like deli bars and pizza-making stations. He adds that students and campus health officials are most concerned about trans fats, which are associated with heart disease. At the urging of nutritionists on campus, the University of Montana is moving toward soon eliminating margarine and oils that contain such fats from all cafeteria kitchens.
While students have long been known to turn to vegetarianism, Lucero says that it's a trend that's still fresh. In fact, officials with the National Association of College and University Food Services say that next year’s competition will likely focus on cooking with tofu in recognition of students’ continued interest in vegetarianism.
At the moment, however, trends in campus cuisine aren’t the top concern for Siegel. He wants to win the cooking showdown. “I’m in my zone,” he says. “I’m chilled.”
Winners of the Culinary Challenge are expected to be announced on Thursday evening.