The cachet of the annual S. Pellegrino “world’s best restaurant” list has apparently rubbed off on its baby sibling competition for up-and-coming North American cooks: the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Awards. Seated at the judging table for the finals last month at the Napa, Calif., campus of the Culinary Institute of America, awaiting the first contestant’s plate, I noticed something odd in my scoring guidelines. None of a possible 50 points was set aside for evaluating the way food was presented on the plate, while 10 were earmarked for assessing how candidates performed at the microphone, explaining their dishes and answering questions.
“I didn’t realize all that chit-chat was key to being a good chef,” I remarked to fellow judge Tony Mantuano, executive chef of Chicago’s Spiaggia, the Michelin-starred Italian restaurant. “It is now,” he replied. Most chefs I know of Mantuano’s generation entered the profession without sparing a second’s thought as to their communications skills—unless it was to congratulate themselves for choosing a trade in which they did not matter a whit. By contrast, most young cooks I meet now seem to regard cooking school as an inconveniently long audition for the Food Network.
But you could not make such a generalization of the Almost Famous finalists. The 10 contestants—nine Americans and one Canadian—were each winners of regional competitions. They were all about to complete culinary school. And the paths that had taken them there were as diverse and unexpected as the places they hoped to go next. Ryan Trinkofsky, a Floridian of Russian Jewish extraction, had been studying music and giving private lessons on the side, when the South Asian mother of a pupil offered him cooking lessons in lieu of payment. So it came to pass that Ryan discovered a passion for samosas that he had never experienced for knishes.
Kristen Thibeault, meanwhile, was a decade into a career in marketing when she was diagnosed with cancer. She emerged from the gruelling treatment with her health restored—and as a vegan, committed to her original dream of being a chef. Another contestant just wanted a way out of bartending. Few expressed a desire to own a restaurant. The most conventional was our own Jean-Christophe Comtois, who attends École hôtelière de la Capital in Quebec City, cooks at a good local bistro (Clocher Pencher), and is male—one of just three in the competition.
“I’ve never been in a kitchen with so many women,” remarked Mark McEwan, one of two Canadian chef judges (along with Susur Lee), as earlier that day we watched the contestants scramble about the kitchen. Their challenge had been to put together a spontaneous dish from a black box of mystery ingredients: flawlessly fresh fillets of Atlantic cod, some pasta clams, a cluster of top-quality blue mussels. Everything else that could possibly be desired—from fish stock to galangal—was readily available from the pantry. Thibeault’s dish of poached cod with gnocchi and sauce verte was up first. She had clearly tasted it just before serving it. And that was impressive not just because she had to temporarily shelve her vegan principles to do so, but rather because tasting what you serve is apparently no longer taught at culinary school, or shown in enough dramatic slo-mo on the Food Network—because the plates that followed featured fish that was cold, or raw, or overcooked to mush, or underseasoned. None of that happens when you taste before you serve.
Unless of course you do not know what fish is supposed to taste like—and in the U.S., where the most widely consumed seafood is frozen shrimp, followed by tinned tuna, this is a possibility. That seafood was outside our contestants’ comfort zone was confirmed on day two: when challenged to prepare their “signature dish,” only one contestant cooked something that swam. The eating improved immeasurably. But it was Thibeault, the vegan, who won the day and the competition with an exceptional dish of porcini-crusted mock-sweetbreads with wild mushrooms and crisp-fried vegetables. Nicely explained, too. She may not be headed for the real S. Pellegrino list—but she is one to keep an eye on all the same.