Competition cooks up among Penn State chefs at Culinary Challenge

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Findlay Commons played host to a display of culinary prowess on Thursday, Dec. 19, when 11 Penn State chefs came together to compete in the PSU Culinary Challenge with the ultimate prize of heading to the The National Association of College & University Food Services Regional Conference in March at Rutgers University.

Similar to a show you may have seen on TV, competitors had a specific ingredient they had to incorporate and were limited to an hour of cooking time. They were also judged on taste, presentation, organization and food safety. This year’s required ingredient was lobster.

Jane Bartley from South Food District was the first chef to begin cooking at 10:50 a.m. The other chefs followed in timed increments until all chefs had completed their hour of cooking and delivered their dish to the judges’ table.

Bartley was participating for the first time and decided to do a dish incorporating lobster and grits. “I was worried about cooking a 2.5 pound lobster with two little burners in an hour,” Bartley said. “Grits cook in five minutes, and I decided to stuff the grits in a tomato to help with my presentation.”

Stephane Gawlowicz, also from South Food District, was a first-time participant as well. He chose to use international influences in his dish. “I love Spain and my idea was to work with a Paella,” Gawlowicz says. “I also wanted to incorporate Japanese influences with sushi. Instead of seaweed, I used Serrano ham to make rolls with the Paella rice.”

Zach Lorber, who was participating for the second time, is from Penn State Altoona. He aimed to challenge himself as a way to continue improving and refining his skills. “I chose to make a saffron butter poached lobster with fennel pomegranate slaw, sundried tomato couscous, harrisa glazed carrots and pistachios. I intentionally pushed myself to create an upscale plate, and I am very pleased with how it came out.”

All three chefs felt the competition was challenging, yet fun. “As soon as you’re concentrating on preparing your dish, you’re fine,” explained Gawlowicz. “It’s really important to focus on the little details.”

“There are constantly people walking past your station, watching your every move and cut, and some people stop and ask questions,” said Lorber. “It is of utmost importance to remain focused on your work. I practiced my dish several times and went into the competition practiced, planned and focused.”

Mark Kowalski, executive chef, kept the competition moving and streamlined. Overall he was impressed with the chefs and their creations. It was one of the largest turnouts he can remember for the Culinary Challenge. “It shows a lot for these staff members to come forward and compete,” Kowalski said. “It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there.”

Kowalski stressed that just because a dish wasn’t perfect or a chef went over the time limit didn’t automatically exclude them from a chance to advance. “The judges looked at taste, how the competitor did and the dish’s overall potential. Maybe it didn’t hit the mark today, but there are just a few things that would make the dish better to move on to the regional competition.”

Lorber was the winning chef at the PSU Culinary Challenge for the second consecutive year. He heads to Rutgers University on March 19 for the NACUFS Regional Conference and will represent Penn State in the culinary challenge. The competition will be similar to Penn State’s requiring Lorber to use the same recipe he used in the previous challenge with lobster as the main ingredient.

“To represent Penn State, at the regional competition, is a great honor for me,” said Lorber. “Penn State is an amazing institution with many talented culinarians. I have worked very hard to develop and refine my dish, and I will go into the next round of competition practiced, organized and focused.”

Other chefs who participated in the PSU Culinary Challenge include the Bryce Jordan Center’s Joe Ertel, Pollock Dining Commons’ Brandon Hendricks, South Food District’s Shannon Lose and Travis McCullough, Neil LaGreca from Penn State Hazleton, Adam Mattocks from Penn State Berks, Paul Motter from Penn State Harrisburg, and Dan Neubert from Penn State Erie, The Behrend College.

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Last Updated January 22, 2014