The tension was palpable as Jean-Christophe Comtois, an Almost Famous Chef (AFC) Competition finalist, bent over the 15 plates, dishing out portions of cod, shrimp, clams and mussels. He concentrated intently on presentation and balance, making sure that each plate contained a bit of each ingredient, hoping fervently that the chef and media judges would approve of his choices. Despite the pressure he took the time to sample a bite of the barley salad, rolling it around in his mouth for several seconds, evaluating the flavors. Apparently satisfied that he had done his best he and his assistant wiped the edges of the plates clean and proclaimed the dishes ready for judging. A line of helpers grabbed plates and Comtois fell in behind them, TV cameras trailing, as he strode out to hear his fate. After some chit chat with the MC Jake Hanover, where Comtois’ French Canadian accent charmed the audience of about 100, he turned around to face the judges who wiped the last crumbs from their lips. “Tell us about this dish. Was it supposed to be warm or cold?” asked one of the judges. Comtois explained that the barley salad was supposed to be cold but the cod was to be warm. “It’s all cold,” snapped another judge in the first indication of where the criticism might lie. “The fish was under-cooked the temperature was off.” The comments were flying from the judges who might be forgiven for being weary of sampling the same ingredients from ten different contestants, but finally a glimmer of hope. “Your technique was excellent,” said one. “You have great ideas and lots of skill,” said another. “Your talent shines through any issues with execution.” Whew, they might have liked it.
Comtois actually got off relatively lightly. Later that evening, Tim Brown, CEO of Nestle North America, said, “I think all the contestants have started breathing again. It seemed like we had a lot of Simon Cowells and not enough Paula Abduls,” expressing some surprise at the harshness of the criticism and comparing the judging panel to past “American Idol” judges. But for anyone who watches the popular TV shows, “Top Chef” or “Chopped”, it was completely expected. The comments for contestant #10 were specific to his dish, but the general tone was exactly the same for every contestant, making it difficult to discern whose food they liked, if anyone’s. Everyone got a healthy dose of both criticism and praise. Most of it was consistent (such as “too sweet”) but occasionally contradictory (“too much salt”, “not enough salt”) and sometimes quirky (one French judge particularly despised cilantro, a perfectly acceptable and commonly used herb that several contestants had the misfortune of utilizing). High praise for Kristen Thibeault, contestant #1, included, “You didn’t murder anything” and “Beautiful sauce”.
The Mystery Basket Competition was held at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley on Saturday, March 9, 2013. The ingredients were revealed and then the young chefs had just two hours to write out a plan, develop a recipe on the spot, and execute, using all of the items in one dish. On Sunday they had to recreate the dish that won them their regional competition, and the results were announced that evening.
From analyzing the comments it was apparent that possible winners included contestant #1, Thibeault, a vegan chef from of Le Cordon Bleu Boston, and Comtois of Ecole Hoteliere de la Capitale in Québec. In the end Comtois won the Mystery Basket Competition and the online Fan Favorite award, while Thibeault won the overall competition and People’s Choice Award. Ace Gonzalez of The Culinary Institute of America, San Antonio won the Signature Dish award.
The AFC Competition, sponsored by S. Pellegrino, has evolved from a small scale contest over the last eleven years, to the powerhouse competition it is today. Unique in that contestants are students currently attending culinary academies throughout North America, it has the potential to propel young chefs on a trajectory that would normally take years to achieve, getting exposure to and feedback from top chefs, and sometimes leading to getting hired into desirable kitchens. According to Deborah Panky of the Daily Herald, the 2011 AFC winner, Marco Bahena, who described the AFC as “life changing”, is now working at Chef Jean Joho’s (one of the AFC judges) Everest Restaurant in Chicago. Thibeault, the winner of this year’s competition, will receive a paid internship with a top chef and a $20,000 cash prize.
Spring Mountain Vineyard
S. Pellegrino, owned by parent company, Nestle Waters, operates under the mantra, “Live in Italian”. In addition to sponsoring the AFC Competition they also hosted participants during the afternoon and evening at Spring Mountain Vineyard, a venerable Napa Valley property that has been growing grapes since the late 1800s. A self-guided walking tour let participants meander through the gardens, stopping at various stations that showcased local artisans ranging from Napa Valley Bee Company honey to a barrel making demonstration from Master Cooper Jason Butler to a cheese, bread and olive oil sampler. A favorite was the Kollar Chocolatier pairing with a 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon deep in the underground wine cave, but the sheep grazing in the vineyard drew a crowd also.
A unique tasting station focused on water, wine and food harmonization, where various foods, such as blue cheese, grass-fed beef tartare and chocolates, were paired with red and white wines. Not so unusual so far, but the next step was a pairing with either S. Pellegrino sparkling mineral water or Acqua Panna still water and the results were unexpected. The minerals, texture and acidity of bottled water can influence the mouthfeel and enjoyment of some foods, and the addition of carbonation can have a significant impact, both positive and negative. S.Pellegrino water, with its mineralization, is meant to be paired with full-bodied wines rich in tannins. Smoked salmon and watercress was enhanced by sparkling wine, as were bread and zesty olive oil, but while beef tartare was delicious with still water it developed a distinctly unpleasant off-flavor with sparkling water. The blue cheese pairing was interesting and split 50:50, with some preferring the burst of cheese flavor that the sparkling water produced, while the still water gave it a long, rich finish. It’s an interesting exercise to try at home. Taste the food, then the wine, followed by one type of water, sparkling or still. Repeat the process with the other kind of water and see how the flavor profile changes.
As the shadows gathered in the vineyard the competitors, judges and guests were treated to a fine meal prepared by Chef Bob Hurley of Hurley’s Restaurant in Yountville. Wild mushroom soup, with chunks of mushrooms in a roasted game broth, was creamy and savory. A simple salad of wild chicories was elevated by the truffled polenta croutons. The sea bass on a bed of toasted farro was cooked perfectly, which was no small task for a group of 150, and the braised lamb shoulder was fork-tender, served over a warm lentil salad with large pieces of artichokes.
The S. Pellegrino AFC Competition provides a rare opportunity for young chefs in training to gain exposure to top chefs and food writers, learn how to interact with media and visit one of the top food and wine destinations in North America. Congratulations are in order for the overall winner, Thibeault, and to Comtois and Gonzalez, but all the competitors should be recognized for their talent and pluck.