Friday, April 26, 2013

TOP STORY >> Students baste in chef’s praise

Leader staff writer

James Beard award-winning Chef Maneet Chauhan of Food Network’s “Chopped” dazzled North Pulaski High School culinary students Thursday, but told them they could be stars, too.

“One of the most important things (for kids to know) is to never let your passion for this industry go and be true to yourself. I am where I am because of my teachers, people who showed me the right way. If I can give back in any way, I will,” she said.

Jacksonville and Little Rock were stops on the celebrity chefs 21 cities in 30 days tour to encourage ProStart’s aspiring chefs attending high schools nationwide and debut her new cook book, “Flavors of My World: A Culinary Tour Through 25 Countries.”

Chauhan has partnered with ProStart — a program the develops the best and brightest talent to secure the future of the restaurant and food service industry — to judge the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s student cooking contests in the cities she visits.

Student Randall Roach won the 40-minute competition held at the student-run Simply Delicious restaurant with his cornbread-encrusted rainbow trout, butterbean polenta and chow chow.

The three North Pulaski students who competed were told to make contemporary American cuisine.

Roach won a $500 knife set and a copy of Chauhan’s book.

The chowchow was his grandmother’s recipe. Roach said she inspired him to become a chef with a restaurant worthy of Michelin stars.

His grandmother died couple of years ago, he said.

“After she passed away, I thought cooking was the best way to be close to her. It’s how we communicate with each other in our house, (through) cooking,” Roach said.

Chauhan told Roach she could see him achieving those Michelin stars in the future.

The stars are a ranking system used by the Michelin guide, which publishes editions in 23 countries and is one of the best-selling restaurant guides in the world.

Just one star is very prestigious while two, three or more are very rare. Less than 100 restaurants in the world earned two stars in 2009 and only about two dozen were honored with three that year.

Roach could also be one of the three finalists selected to compete for a trip to Washington and a day of cooking with one of the featured chefs on the White House Chef Tour.

The finalists will be announced during the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago May 18-21.

Chauhan said, “It’s incredible to see the amount of zeal in these young kids.”

The chef noted that she was shocked and pleased when an 11-year-old girl she met at a book signing told her she wanted to specialize in molecular gastronomy. That is a subdiscipline of food science that seeks to look into and explain how ingredients change physically and chemically during cooking.

Food and travel writer Doug Singer, co-author of Chauhan’s book, is accompanying her on the tour. He also judged the NPHS competition.

“There is this whole generation of kids that have embraced food as a cultural experience. We have a very bright future as a country from a culinary perspective” Singer said.

He would tell aspiring chefs, “Just keep doing what you’re doing. Do it for the right reasons and success will come. Don’t do it to be successful. Do it because you love it.”

Chauhan, as a judge, was looking to “just see the creativity, the mentality.”

She said, “To me, cooking is like life. It’s all about evolution.”

Techniques can be taught, Chauhan added.

Roach was up against two other members of his four-person culinary team. The team won at the state level and advanced to the National ProStart Invitational held April 19-21 in Baltimore, which they didn’t place in.

Jacob Mosely prepared lamb chops with risotto, a red wine reduction sauce and shitake mushrooms. He also wants to become a chef.

“I like the challenges it throws at me. If something’s not right I have to think on my feet,” Mosely said.

Tiffani Yarberry, who hasn’t chosen a career yet, made oven-roasted shrimp with garlic chips and spicy pico de gallo.

“I like it because it brings new opportunities to see different cultures and it’s a lot of fun,” she said.

Chauhan — in a ponytail, jeans and a flowing bright pink and purple shirt — was in and out of the Simply Delicious kitchen smiling and asking the three students questions about their dishes.

She told them, after announcing the winner, “That was fantastic. You actually made me hungry. These dishes were excellent. I see a very bright future for all of you.”

Chauhan also offered advice on all three meals.

She told Yarberry the pico de gallo needed something extra. “Keep in mind each and every complement needs to be, by itself, spectacular,” Chauhan said.

The chef suggested Mosely use rice instead of risotto because risotto takes so long to prepare correctly. “It’s a labor of love,” she explained.

But he was complimented on getting the lamb medium-rare and for adding a splash of color to his presentation with broccoli.

Roach was told the addition of a Granny Smith apple to his cole slaw side would have made his meal better.

Chauhan invited this Leader reporter to travel to the high school on her bus and speak with her one-on-one.

She is from India and lives in New York.

Chauhan is married and has a 20-month-old daughter she hates being away from.

The chef’s first teachers were her parents. Her mother was a master of traditional Indian dishes while her father created desserts.

They used to say “I was born with a ladle in my hand,” Chauhan noted. “I like to eat good food, that’s why I cook,” she continued.

When complimented for being humble, the chef said, “It’s much easier to be down to earth. I prefer to put all my effort into cooking.”

Before traveling to the high school in her bus, Mayor Gary Fletcher presented Chauhan with a key to the city at America’s Best Value Inn.

She said, “It’s such a heartwarming feeling. This is one of the greatest honors I’ve ever received. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’ve just been overwhelmed by the warmth and hospitality. I love the people (of Jacksonville). That’s what really makes the day.”