Screaming, chanting fans. Sweaty competitors trying to beat the clock.
The pride of the home court advantage.
One mystery ingredient.
“Hoover! Hoover! Hoover!”
” Tony! Tony! Tony!”
Last Thursday St. John’s had two major competitions – one on the basketball court, and one in the kitchen. While the Red Storm battled it out for the NIT Championship in Alumni Hall, the lesser known culinary face-off was just as exciting.
The first annual Iron Chef competition took place in Montgoris Dining Hall, and I had the honor of being one of the judges.
The mystery ingredient was prawn, which looks and tastes just like a huge shrimp. The two chefs were Paul Hoover, who was cooking on his home court of Montgoris where he resides as the head chef, and Anthony Felice, who has worked as head chef in the Vincentian Residence for many years.
Now, I don’t pretend to be a food critic by any means, but I have traveled to Mexico, France, Jamaica, England, Scotland, and Italy and all over the United States – eating in excellent restaurants along the way. Hands down, the food produced by these two chefs was some of the best food I have ever tasted.
Actually – the best food I’ve ever tasted.
I was skeptical at first – how good could this really be? I mean, I’ve eaten at Montgoris just about every night for the past three years and while it’s not bad, it’s not great. But I tried to enter with an open mind and vowed not to let the past influence my decision.
They steamed and boiled and grilled for an hour, the whole time explaining their every move – what they were making, why they were adding certain ingredients, and why they were following a certain process.
It was then that it began to hit me that these men were actual professionals.
They moved around the equipment with ease, shouting off friendly orders to each other while nervously glancing at the clock periodically. The perspiration glistened on their foreheads while their confidence dripped from their fingertips. Rarely do you witness such passion and imagination while watching someone at work.
One by one the dishes began to appear in front of us and the excitement came to a head around us.
The hour was up and the judging began – each dish was displayed to us, explained in detail by each chef, and then served. After we had eaten we had to judge the creation based on presentation, creativity, taste and use of the mystery ingredient on a scale from one to five, with five being the best.
I was a bit nervous at first; I am extremely picky about what I eat and I really don’t like to try new things. But I couldn’t resist – the colors and smells and descriptions given by the chefs were incredible. And the taste was even better.
There was curry shrimp, sweet potato cakes and spicy fajita dishes. My personal favorite was the first dish served by Hoover – a light green, sweet, honey laced soup that was simply incredible.
It was a tough job – all the food was great, and I thought picking a winner would be impossible. In the end, just four points separated the two chefs. I had Hoover winning, but Felice ended up taking the honors. Both deserved it equally.
What struck me even more than the food itself were the chefs. They were so proud of what they were doing – they seemed to love every second of it.
Finally they were able to display their abilities to the world, not held down by the restrictions of mass production and hundreds of taste buds. They were free to express themselves through their love of food.
That pride is well deserved. They are talented professionals who are making an honest living while helping others through food preparation. You could see the gleam in their eyes when the crowd got into it and began chanting their names. Finally, they were getting the recognition they deserve.
I can recall very few times that I have walked into the Dining Hall and stopped to think of the people who are actually making the food I am about to consume. They don’t just pop open a can of pre-made food and stick it on a tray. There is actual food preparation taking place, with talented and highly trained chefs behind it all.
I know what you’re thinking – you’ve eaten in the Dining Hall before and you’ve never had food that tasted like what I am describing. And I admit that neither have I – but that’s the point.
These people are capable of amazing food creations – why are we not experiencing it on a regular basis?
Inviting me to judge this competition was a double-edged sword for the Aramark Company. I cannot say enough about how talented these chefs are, and how incredible this experience was for me – but now I have to pose the question – why are these professionals not allowed to flex their chef muscles more often? I, for one, would love to see more of what they are capable of – and obviously love – doing.