Culinary Institute of New York students hungry for National Crown

July 16, 2016

lohud.com

Denise Aquayo, a rising senior at The Culinary Institute of New York at Monroe College in New Rochelle, hasn't prepared a meal for her family in two years. The Glendale, Arizona native will head home this weekend for the first time since she was just a sophomore

apprentice in the program. She'll use members of her family as guinea pigs to try her signature dish in a final trial run before she cooks it at the American Culinary Federation's National Competition in nearby Phoenix on Sunday.

Aquayo, who was named the Northeast Regional Student Chef of the Year in February, was one of five chefs to qualify for the cook-off. The college's competition team, comprised of five other students, won the regional team title and will also compete for a national crown. "It's all pretty exciting," Aquayo said. "My teacher from high school is letting us use the kitchen there to practice."

Three months ago, the ACF gave requirements for ingredients that could or couldn't be used in a dish. From there, the students worked with mentors, and Dean Frank Constantino, to create what they hope will be award-winning dishes for as much as 30 hours per week.

"The judges look for a high level of technical skills," Constantino said. "The food should be cooked really well, be presented well, and be hot or cold when it's supposed to be hot or cold."

Both competitions are reminiscent of a show you'd find on Food Network. As an individual, Aquayo must create one main course — replicated on four plates — in one hour and 10 minutes. Similarly, the five-person team must create a four-course meal in an hour and 15 minutes. In the team competition, Monroe has selected a student to specialize in each signature course: one classical and contemporary dishes of salad, fish and dessert.

"Some of us are more experienced with certain things than others," said rising senior Hipolito Torres. "We play off each other’s advantages, yet no one has disadvantages. That way we just blossom."

Torres said competing at a high level for the past year gives the students an advantage over other chefs-in-training. Competitions put them in a high-pressure environment with a lot of yelling and working with fellow chefs. At the same time, it shows them the harsh reality of hierarchy in the kitchen and how much work it takes to get to the top as an executive.

"Seeing that we’ve been in competitions since we started college, we can see that we’re not going to graduate and become executive chefs immediately," Aquayo said.

Some will choose to strive for that position. Others, like Torres and Aquayo, may take a different path. Torres is interested in food art and photography, while Aquayo has ambitions of opening a café in the Phoenix area. Still, they know they can take the hours of practicing knife skills, butchering and paying attention to detail into their professions.

"It’s a microcosm of things that are important to a good chef," Constantino said. "The ability to work under pressure, to serve high-quality food and get food out on a deadline. They know how to get that done."