Amherst Chef Takes Silver in Competition

We all represent Amherst in our own way. Some of us compete in debates or crew regattas, and others in NESCAC matches or writing competitions. As we apply to graduate schools, fellowships and jobs, we do so proudly bearing the Amherst name. These achievements not only reflect our personal abilities but also those of our community. They reveal the Amherst community’s dedication to constant improvement through competition and seem to appear everywhere, even within the food world.

Imagine competing in the Iron Chef for Amherst College. You’re pitted against chefs from different academic institutions across the Northeast region, going head-to- head with UMass and Yale. The competition is fierce, and the challenge is a bit more involved than simply using a key ingredient in a fully equipped kitchen and worrying only about presentation, texture and flavor. This is not a contest amongst restaurant chefs who may cook behind closed doors but rather one amongst institutional chefs used to preparing food on display and in front of hundreds, if not thousands, of students and faculty.

In late March, Executive Chef Jeremy Roush and Director of Dining Services Charlie Thompson trekked down to Rutgers University to watch Amherst’s own chef, Chi Huynh, compete in the Culinary Challenge at the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast Regional Conference for the National Association of College and University Food services. After months of preparation and passing through the rigorous selection process, Chi was finally preparing four separate servings of what would be the Silver Medal dish of the competition: lobster and succotash.

Chi began his journey in January as he submitted his recipe and all of its nutritional information to the Culinary Challenge committee, accompanied by a photograph of the dish. Not only did he have to reveal the exact ingredients and proportions used within the dish, but Chi also had to inform the judges from the American Culinary Institution of the nutritional facts that you might expect to see on a food label for a bag of chips — things like the number of calories per serving and the total amount of sodium, all of which he had to calculate himself. Luckily, his hard work and attention to each tedious detail paid off as the judges, including Noble Masi, a famous instructor from the Culinary Institute of America, chose Chi to compete in the ten-person, Northeast regional challenge.

On the day of competition, Chi and the other nine chefs assembled according to a random list created the night before. Each had an hour to create his or her dish using a limited amount of space and cooking capacity, thus mimicking typical food preparation resources one might find in a university or college food service. The chefs only had two eight-foot tables with an induction burner, a chafing dish, and a cutting board — barely enough space or tools to cook the meals. As they worked, each had to be innovative and maximize upon limited resources. All the while, judges observed and graded them on organization and sanitation as they watched for proper food handling techniques, such as not touching the food with bare hands and preventing cross-contamination that can occur when raw meat comes into contact with vegetables. Later, the judges considered each final dish and ranked the chefs upon the usual Iron Chef factors — presentation, texture and taste. This all-encompassing challenge tested the chefs from start to finish on those skills necessary in the institutional food services sector, from maintaining professionalism in a stressful atmosphere to producing high quality food.

As if these added pressures were not enough, Chi also entered as the first chef to ever represent Amherst, compete against cooks from larger institutions such UMass, Rhode Island School of Design and Yale. In this tense challenge, Chi quickly made the succotash that would accompany his lobster, shelling the fresh fava beans and preparing the corn. He rolled his pasta by hand and cooked the two lobsters before extracting their meat. In order to utilize the lobsters in entirety, Chi poached the empty shells in butter to create a sauce. Thus, his final product became four separate servings of lobster and succotash atop a bed of fresh, hand-rolled pasta, drizzled with a rich, lobster-infused sauce.

In the space of an hour, Chi not only competed as the first ever representative from the Amherst culinary services, but also created a dish that won him, and Amherst, a silver medal on his first try. He fell only three and a half points shy of gold, which would have sent him on to the national competition. Still, I would say that his ability to bring home a proud silver bodes well for his standings in future challenges, and Chi has made our entire community at Amherst proud.