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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Students Channel Cat Cora and Emeril in USF Culinary Throwdown

Posted By on Wed, Jan 19, 2011 at 8:00 AM

USF students Bethany Goodrich, Adam Lawicki, and Travis Blackburn channel their inner Emeril. - ALEX HOCHMAN
  • Alex Hochman
  • USF students Bethany Goodrich, Adam Lawicki, and Travis Blackburn channel their inner Emeril.

During freshman year at Michigan's Mary Markley Hall, we thought that a cup-a-soup made with lukewarm water from the bathroom faucet, a stale fragel, and a flat Faygo red pop constituted a gourmet dorm room meal. Times have changed. We were lucky to be a guest judge at last week's USF Resident Advisor (R.A.) Culinary Challenge and were blown away by the breadth and sophistication of the cooking.

For the challenge, 21 teams ― each with three R.A.s ― gathered in the school's cafeteria and were tasked with making either a breakfast or lunch item in 30 minutes. A winning team would be chosen from each category, and each team's "kitchen" was a folding table topped with a portable burner.

The contest started, Iron Chef-style, with students gathering ingredients from a vast table covered with typical college nourishment like raw burger patties, dried pasta, and trail mix, along with other items (hunks of blue cheese, Alfredo sauce, a blend of peanut butter chips and mini marshmallows, etc.).

Shockingly, none of the students bum-rushed the buffet. Instead, they quietly lined up to select components. We don't remember waiting patiently in line for anything in college, especially during a competition, but then again we didn't study amongst the Jesuits.

Teams pick their ingredients: Where's the panic? - ALEX HOCHMAN
  • Alex Hochman
  • Teams pick their ingredients: Where's the panic?

The calm continued as contestants got down to cooking in a quiet, focused atmosphere, more library during finals than Top Chef insanity.

Pig farmers need not worry about future demand. Of the 11 breakfast dishes we sampled, eight featured pork products, including an inventive ― if not death-defyingly caloric ― sandwich of French toast wrapped around a scramble of eggs, pesto, and bacon. It was, as the students would say, crazy delicious.

Regarding his Chicken with a Bam (a chicken breast sautéed with garlic, onions, and marinara), sophomore Adam Lawicki boasted, "It smells the best, tastes the best, and is the best." Yep, these kids grew up on Emeril, like we grew up on the Fonz. We're not sure which is scarier.

click to enlarge The One-Eyed Jack breeakfast sandwich, winner of the a.m. portion of the competition. - ALEX HOCHMAN
  • Alex Hochman
  • The One-Eyed Jack breeakfast sandwich, winner of the a.m. portion of the competition.

The One-Eyed Jack sandwich, from grad student Jason Pfeifer, sophomore Alison Janigan, and senior Diana Johnson, won the breakfast category not only for its deliciousness, but also for its presentation, which blew the field away. An egg was fried in a holed-out square of focaccia, layered with bacon, spinach, tomato, mozzarella, pesto, basil, and red peppers, and topped with another focaccia slice drizzled with more pesto. A selection of fruits served alongside were soaked in guava and cranberry juice, and to complete the pirate theme, a half banana was made to look like a giant squid. We would have been happy paying $15 for this dish at some brunch place in the Mission (okay, maybe minus the banana squid detail).

Senior Grace Woodrow, junior Kashira Smullen, and sophomore Peter Aldana created the Basic BLT Refined, which won the lunch competition. Unfortunately, not a crumb remained by the time our breakfast judging gig was over.

There were two main takeaways from the contest. First, today's college students watch way too much Top Chef and Iron Chef ― we heard multiple references to Colicchio, Simmons, Cora, Steingarten, etc. Second, bacon, which featured in both winning dishes, reigns supreme as the surest way to please a judge. Some things never change.

Follow Alex Hochman at @urbanstomach . Follow SFoodie at @sfoodie.

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