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Culinary Challenge Brings Out the Best in Five USC Chefs

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Chef Robert Green concentrates on elements of his winning creation, as William Wilson works at his station.

CLAD IN CRISP white aprons, they sliced, sautéed and simmered. And they treated the Coho salmon with the respect it deserved.

But it wasn’t enough to julienne the carrots – the cutting had to be precise because a judge with a ruler was poised to measure.

On Jan 13, five USC chefs faced off in a quest to wear the “golden toque.”

Only one could win the inaugural Golden Toque Culinary Challenge.

Parkside Restaurant hosted the fast-paced afternoon of cooking, creativity and competition in its Performance Cafe where visitors could watch some of the university’s culinary artists in action.

The featured ingredient of Coho salmon brought the competitors together, original recipes in hand. The recipes were submitted in advance and had to be followed to the letter – or the ounce.

THE PARTICIPANTS were vying for the chance to travel with USC executive chef Mark Baida to Tucson, Ariz., where they will compete in the National Association of College and University Food Services’ regional competition in March. The winner will advance to the organization’s national cook-off in Las Vegas in July.

“Their passion for cooking really came through,” Baida said, referring to the five challengers. “They were excited about the opportunity to compete – as well as learn – from each other at the same time.”

The competitors were executive chef Kenneth Williams (retail operations), chef Robert Green (International Residential College) and culinary specialists Brian McCarthy (IRC), Raul Ortega (Commons) and William Wilson (Town and Gown).

Each contestant worked on a heavy-duty portable gas grill and was given 30 minutes to set up prior to the competition. Then each had just one hour to prepare his original entreé complete with sauces and side dishes. In addition to a taste test and presentation of the finished product, judging was based on cooking skills, culinary techniques and knife handling, as well as organizational skills, including attention to food safety and sanitation.

FOUR EXECUTIVE CHEFS, including Baida, had the job of deciding who would go to Tucson.
The judges were Giovanni Delrosario, L.A. Trade Tech; Christian André Monch—tre, Jonathan Club; Craig Smith, Southern California Gas Co., and Baida.

As judges and guests wandered about, the competitors remained focused on their task, moving quickly from food prep stations and chopping blocks to gas grills, in what looked like a culinary ballet.

When the cooking was finished, each competitor plated his creation, paying careful attention to critical details. It wasn’t enough for the dish to taste good – it also had to be a feast for the eyes.

Once the dishes were plated, they were presented to the judges who measured, filled out grading forms and savored mouthfuls. Did flavors complement each other? Did one flavor overpower another? And most importantly, did the flavor of the main ingredient – the salmon – come through?

A short round of critiques preceded the presentation of the golden toque. Though the critiques were tough, the event was always about the food and reminding the chefs that there is always room for improvement.

SO WHO EARNED the right to wear the golden toque?

Green, the Parkside chef, impressed the judges with his winning entry “Braised Salmon With Basmati Rice Crisp and Cucumber, Daikon and Jicama Salad.” But don’t ask for the recipe – it will be kept under wraps until early March.

“The reason to compete is to better yourself, challenge yourself, prove to yourself that you know your craft,” Green said. “What can be better than when your hobby, and doing what you love, is your profession?

“I’m very proud to be representing the university,” Green said. “The quality demonstrated in this competition shows that the university segment of the food service industry compares well with the restaurant segment.”

Michael Mango is a freelance writer.

Culinary Challenge Brings Out the Best in Five USC Chefs

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