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Okanagan College Level 2 Apprentice culinary student Erin MacDougall cooked her way to victory and an all-expenses paid trip to Italy at the third annual OC Road to Riccione Cook-off competition today.
The competition saw four OC students design and prepare their own Italian-themed menu. They were tasked with creating a main entrée featuring arctic char and a dessert, all in a little over two hours. Competitors were given the opportunity to see the available ingredients on the common table beforehand but were told to anticipate a surprise ingredient, which turned out to be eggplant, a revelation that came just before they took to their stations in the kitchen.
“I’ve been practicing non-stop for this competition and it’s an amazing feeling to see that my hard-work and training has paid off,” says MacDougall. “I was totally shocked when I found out I’d won.”
MacDougall’s winning dishes consisted of oak crusted arctic char, mushroom risotto, sautéed eggplant, seared asparagus heads, fennel, citrus slaw and golden beets laid onto of a vibrant spread of asparagus coulis. For her dessert, she presented crepes with a lemoncello lemon curd, whipped mascarpone, macerated raspberries and candied hazelnuts.
While cooking and preparing their dishes, competitors were judged on their technical skills, station organization, safety and sanitation by OC Culinary Arts instructors Chef Stuart Klassen and Chef Geoffrey Couper. The final dishes were then judged on presentation, timing, doneness, innovation, textures and portion sizes during a blind tasting by OC’s Chef Jim Armstrong, Sysco’s Chef Brent Durec and former owner and chef of Gray Monk restaurant, Chef Willi Franz.
“We saw some well-thought out and beautifully presented dishes during today’s competition,” says Armstrong. “The competition was very close and we commend each student for their passion, guts, dedication and hard-work. Competitions like these aren’t easy, especially when you’re competing for such a big prize as a free trip to Italy.”
MacDougall will be joined by a winning student from an upcoming competition hosted by the Okanagan Chef’s Association, and OC instructors Chef Jim Armstrong and Chef Mike Barillaro when they travel to Riccione in early October. The trip will see students tour a prosciutto factory, watch culatello and parmesan being made, travel to the city of Modena to learn about traditional balsamic vinegar and to Bologna to experience a one star Michelin restaurant.
“I am so excited to travel to Italy,” says MacDougall. “I’ve never been to Europe and being a young mom with a two-year old, big trips like this aren’t really in the cards for me at this point in time. This is a life-changer for me.”
MacDougall will also have the opportunity to do a bit of cooking while in Riccione. The five chefs will be working together to prepare a traditional Canadian thanksgiving dinner at the renowned award-winning Hotel Belvedere.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime trip and invaluable for up-and-coming chefs,” explains Chef Barillaro. “Each student put their heart into their plates and showcased a great level of composure, skill and technique in the kitchen today.”
Also competing in the cook-off were Culinary students Kassi Sherman, Leif Donglin Ye and runner-up Hannah Zheng.
The four students prepared meals in front of a crowd of friends and family and a few faces familiar to the College’s Culinary Arts program including former OC Culinary Manager Chef Bernard Casavant and 2016 Culinary Arts alumnus Josh Starrett. Casavant now serves as Director of Operations for RauDZ Creative Concepts Ltd. He oversees the company’s four restaurants including Sunny’s Modern Table where Starrett works and MacDougall is currently completing her co-op term.
“We came to support Erin today,” explains Starrett. “I competed in two of these competitions when I was a student and can tell you first-hand how valuable they were in my skills development. I think the secret to cooking in competitions is to cook happy and to not worry about whether you’re going to win or not, but to find happiness with the plate you put out.”