By PETER MONAGHAN
Published, July 27th, 2007
Sauté pans sizzle; steamers simmer; bains-marie bathe. Blades slice, dice, and julienne.
It's the Super Bowl of campus cooking: the Culinary Challenge of the National Association of College and University Food Services. And it's held not in a state-of-the-art kitchen, but in a convention-center ballroom, now redolent of garlic, fennel, lemongrass, and the finest olive oil.
This afternoon six chefs, immaculate in their kitchen whites, have arrived at adjacent stations pushing tall, mobile kitchen racks loaded with everything each will need to prepare, in just one hour, four plates of a meal designed to wow three highly discerning judges.
Then, staggered by 10 minutes, they're off.
They chop leeks and shallots to sauté in butter, or press boiled potatoes and artichokes through a stainless-steel food mill, or sweat ginger, garlic, and lemongrass in a saucepan.
One lean, intent young man drops gratings of Parmesan cheese into a warm frying pan and then peels it up as a filigree wafer, which he lays over a tin can and then a few moments later peels off and stands upright as a fan to garnish his dish.
All about are sieves, colanders, ring molds, oil cans, rolling pins, and arcane devices known only to kitchen aficionados.
Roving cameramen capture images beamed to a large screen in the convention hall, while Kevin Brauch, host of the popular cable-television program The Thirsty Traveler, keeps up a constant patter.
And all this activity revolves around the obligatory ingredient of this year's challenge: extra-firm tofu.
Yes, curd of mashed soybeans, a foodstuff so bland it doesn't even do justice to its etymological roots in Chinese words meaning soured, or rotten, beans.
At last year's event, when the competition's committee announced that tofu would be the required ingredient — in keeping with the Pacific Rim site of the 2007 convention — attendees emitted a collective groan of dismay.
Could any concoction of bean curd possibly engage campus chefs to such inspired creations as those that have won recent challenges? Last year Edward Castillo, a sous chef at Rice University, took the honors with his Pan-Seared Chicken Supreme with Porcini-Mushroom Sauce. The year before, Sebastian Nieto, of Rutgers University at New Brunswick, won with Medallions of Lamb with Quince and Malbec Sauce, paired with Polenta with Root Vegetables, Swiss Chard, and Poached Asian Pears.
As the dishes take shape here, the answer appears to be, Yes. Brian M. Kateusz, a chef at the Treetops Café at LaSalle University and a 10-year veteran of the food-service industry who specializes in Italian cuisine with Latin and Asian touches, prepares tofu gnocchi by sautéing leeks and shallots in butter with fresh thyme, and blending that with bean curd, aged goat cheese, and egg. He works in flour and shapes the dough into dumplings that he quickly boils.
To accompany those, he prepares a sauce made from wine, mushrooms, mustard, shallots, and herbs. He pairs the dish with a vegetable roll constructed from tofu "skins" filled with red peppers, yellow squash, and brussels sprouts.
Mr. Kateusz's competitors are just as imaginative. Anthony J. Jung, of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (Pan-Seared Tofu with Green-Curry Coconut Sauce, Noodle Stir Fry Topped with Sunny Egg, Baby Bok Choy, and Tourné Carrots); Paul A. Oesterle Jr., of the University of Georgia (Tofu and Calamata Olive Ravioli with Sautéed Wild Mushrooms and Green-Pea Sauce); and Christian J. Black, of the University of Colorado at Boulder (Talladega Tofu, which involves marinating the bean curd in apple juice and spices and coating it in fennel pollen and cornstarch shake-and-bake fashion to produce what he calls "the Southern-fried chicken of tofu").
"We don't have the opportunity to be this creative all the time," says Andrew J. Mayne, another of the finalists. A New Zealander who is the executive chef for catering at Stanford University, his Tofu for You is a trio of tofu napoleon with goat cheese on a bed of Jerusalem artichoke mashed with chive oil and tomato coulis; tempura-battered tofu with a citrus-based ponzu sauce; and a chocolate mousse made of tofu.
Mr. Mayne was not disappointed when tofu was named the mandatory ingredient. Bean curd, he says, "has had a bad rap."
As he and his opponents toil, three judges representing the American Culinary Federation, which sanctions most high-level national cooking competitions, stalk the kitchenettes in full chef's regalia. They look for strengths and failings. The texture of the foods must be right, the ingredients compatible, and the meal nutritious. Transgressions include spills and poor organization.
Tofu and Calamata Olive Ravioli with Sauteed Wilde Mushrooms and Gream-Pea Sauce, a regional winner by Paul A. Oesterle Jr., of the U. of Georgia
The Culinary Challenge, now seven years old, is not only creating more interest among campus chefs, it has also become a high-pressure event. As Mr. Mayne's allotted 60 minutes for pursuing campus-cooking fame expire, he reports that midway through his time, "everything went a little Hollywood; everything just kind of stopped. But then I refocused and things came together."
Not quite enough. The prize goes, instead, to Barry Greenberg, executive chef at the University of Iowa's Memorial Union, who has constructed an intricate Japanese-style bento box whose compartments he fills with miso soup, tofu sushi, a tofu and shiitake-mushroom spring roll, a cucumber and seaweed salad, and shumai, or dumplings, that he makes from edamame (soybeans boiled in their pods) and tofu, and steams on lettuce leaves.
He completes the already daunting selection with a small smoothie of mango cubes and puree, ginger, crushed ice, and, yes, tofu.
He takes a silver medal; no one takes the gold. Is this merely a reflection on the limitations of tofu? The judges look quite content with all the dishes; they huddle nearby, smacking their lips. Only they get to eat the challengers' dishes. Onlookers, their applause for the finalists' exertions over, must take their teased noses and palates off to find satisfaction elsewhere.
For contestants' biographies and recipes, go to the NACUFS site.
Published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, July 27th, 2007
Volume 53, Issue 47, Page A40