Dishes clinked, stovetops flared and 10 anxious chefs in the heat of competition kept glancing at the clock at MU’s University Club kitchen Monday.
Two five-man teams of apprentice chefs from Johnson County Community College in suburban Kansas City and St. Louis Community College at Forest Park were locked in a competition held by the staff of the University Club and its executive chef, Daniel Pliska.
“In sports, it’d be like a preseason game,” Pliska said. “This is kind of a practice for the two teams.”
The teams were preparing for a regional cooking competition that will be held in Chicago in two weeks. The winner of the regional competition will be invited to the American Culinary Federation’s national competition in July in Orlando, Fla.
Lindy Robinson, assistant dean of the Hospitality Culinary Program at Johnson County Community College, said practicing in mock competitions allows the chefs to sharpen their skills.
“It’s important we take them away from their home kitchen,” Robinson said.
Chrystal Tatum, a second-year apprentice chef, agrees.
“We have to be able to adapt to different things,” she said.
Pliska, who works with several apprentices, said he wanted to host the scrimmage in hopes of getting more mid-Missouri chefs interested in taking on apprentices.
“We are the only institution in mid-Missouri that offers formal culinary training through the American Culinary Federation in this three-year apprenticeship program,” Pliska said, referring to the University Club. “I have a lot of people that want to learn culinary and they’re always asking, ‘Where can I study?’”
The apprenticeship program at both Johnson County Community College and St. Louis Community College at Forest Park is a standardized program administered through the ACF, the largest and oldest U.S. association of professional chefs and cooks.
The program requires students to work under a certified chef’s supervision for 40 hours a week and to attend school one day a week. It is about a 60-hour commitment per week, Pliska said.
“This is one of the most stressful occupations you can have,” said Tatum, who attends Johnson County Community College. “But I love the food and I love this.”
The scrimmage started with a 45-minute knife skills test in which the apprentices — in their tall white hats, looking like everyone’s idea of a chef — sharpened their cutting types and techniques.
The teams then moved on to a three-hour cooking competition in which each team made a four-course meal.
Pliska said the chefs have to follow many rules in competitions like this — for example, no ingredients can be repeated in any dish and no technique can be used twice in preparing the food.
Also, one member of the five-person team is allowed only to wash and warm the dishes and to clean the cooking area; he or she may not touch the food.
“There’s a lot of variables,” Pliska said. “It’s very intense to do all these different things and work together as a group and get it done in such a short period of time.”
Once the dishes, looking more like works of art than entrees, were presented, they were critiqued by the judges, including Pliska and the coaches of the teams.
Each dish — including fillet of flounder with pesto and prosciutto, smoked chicken breast with chanterelle farce (stuffing) and a warm chocolate fritter — was meticulously discussed on its taste, presentation, preparation and flow with the meal.
The judges ended with suggestions for improvement.
“It’s all just for feedback,” Pliska said.