Last week I was honored and humbled to serve as a judge of The Ritz Carlton, Sarasota’s White Apron Cooking Contest. This annual event is an in-house contest among the line cooks of the four local kitchens located at the Ritz Carlton’s properties. That includes Jack Dusty, Ridley’s Porch, the Lido Key Tiki Bar and the Golf Club Grille. I can only imagine how thrilling it was for the 13 young chefs participating in the contest to present their own creation to their mentors and Ritz’s management staff, as well as known local chefs like Chef Steve Phelps from Indigenous and Chef Jose Rojas from Louie’s Modern. Also serving as a judge was Matthew Freeman of Edible Sarasota and the Ritz’s Marketing Communications Coordinator Stacey Anderson . . . and little ol’ me! There were 10 of us in all.
Recognizing that talent needs to be nurtured and recognized, Executive Chef Yann Chupin brought the popular “White Apron Contest,” to the culinary team here in Sarasota. The contest is limited only to the younger line cooks, who typically cook off a set recipe created by someone else.
“Creativity is the soul of cooking, ” Chef Yann explained. “We want to cultivate, enliven and renew our culinary team’s passion for being the best. The White Apron contest gives them a chance to stand out and be recognized.”
Similar to chef challenges you see on television, each participant was presented with a list of 6 ingredients and tasked with using a minimum of 4 of those ingredients in either an Appetizer, Entree or Dessert. Each ingredient is worth 1 bonus point, so using all 6 was a strategy every young Chef used to their advantage.
When Chef Steve Phelps looked at the list of ingredients; avocado, orange, tea, lemongrass, honey and brown rice, he turned to Chef Yann and asked: “You didn’t take it easy on them, did you?”
We were shown into a private event space with two tables angled at a “v” shape, facing a podium. Behind each table was a live video feed into the kitchen where we could watch the young cooks help each other finalize their plating. At our tables was a yellow file folder with scoring sheets for each creation. We were asked to score up to five points each on Presentation, Creativity and Flavor/Temperature. Then add the possible 6 bonus points for use of the featured ingredients.
One by one, the participants carried their dish to the podium, presented themselves and their dish and explained their inspiration behind the choices they made in its creation. Some cooks had clever names for their dish, while others only called out the main ingredients. Every one of them appeared a bit nervous. In addition to the 6 featured ingredients, each cook had full use of the Ritz Carlton’s pantry for added components to their dish.
Without going into the ingredients of each dish, I’ll show the photos from the 4 appetizers, with the winning dish being last. There were 2 dishes that featured scallops, one that used Ahi tuna alternating with the brown rice in a tower shape and a delightful fried avocado.
The winning entry came from Angie Katra, who stepped into the competition only an hour or so beforehand, picking up a spot left by a competitor who couldn’t attend. I bet she’s glad she stepped up to the plate!
Angie used the tea separate of her main dish, serving a honey Chai tea brewed for the competition. Angie has been asked by a number of the Ritz Carlton’s guests and residents to make Chai tea because she knows how to brew it like they do back home. I noticed that most of the judges kept their teapot when the dishes were cleared after each course, or at least filled their teacup to the top.
Following the appetizers were 4 dishes composed for the entrée course of the White Apron Cooking Competition. The first was a grilled shrimp and rice dish, with the shrimp cooked on skewers made from lemongrass. Very clever and delicious.
Following that was a South American take on Beef Wellington. Instead of a bread crust surrounding the beef, this young cook used cornmeal and panko. He also made a rice cake with golden buttons of chicken sauce to dip the rice in, along with a fried avocado ball. Very out of the box. I liked his ingenuity.
An orange glazed chicken with colorful carrots cooked in tea was next on the entrée course. This was the only dish that used the orange ingredient front and center, and it was done with a flavor a bit different than what classic orange chicken would taste like. She also served it with a honey glaze and a brown rice tuile. The avocado was presented as a sauce with the brown rice formed into a seasoned ball and flash fried.
The winning entrée was presented by Francisco Alvarez and featured butter broiled lobster with a frisee salad, honey glazed baby carrots, and brown rice tuile. There was also a lemongrass foam decorating the dish, adding that exact amount of citrus to enhance the buttery lobster. The dressing on the frisee was ideal, as it is a bitter lettuce that was made happy by the citrus dressing.
Chef Phelps and Rojas both noted that the dessert round would probably be the hardest, based on the 6 featured ingredients they had to work with. But never fear, the culinary crew at the Ritz blew this course out of the water. Seriously, I can’t think of one dish that wasn’t worthy of being served at a high ticket charity fundraiser.
The dessert round was occupied by an all-female staff, and each dish was colorful and inviting. Several dishes used the avocado in a mousse or ice cream, the rice in a cracker and infused the lemongrass, orange, honey, and tea into a meringue or sauce. Even then, no dish tasted alike. The first dessert is shown in the cover shot for this blog. . . I loved how they looked all plated in a row. The exact spacing and detail showed the visual intent of the pastry chef, as well as her use of color to appeal to the visual sense. Trust me, the taste buds were happy!
I especially enjoyed the plating on this round. In the photo above, the pastry chef served a brown rice pudding in a shot glass rimmed with chocolate, as well as a pistachio ice cream with white chocolate wafers. There is a honey sauce painted into a swirl on the place and a lovely lemongrass custard pyramid.
The tart you see in the photo below was a blood orange pudding topped with an avocado mousse, small lemongrass jellies and tea wafers and meringue. The green ball was a creamy dark chocolate ganache sphear, and the French macaron was tea and honey . . . hence the small chocolate bee! I especially liked the crunchy brittle on this plate.
Also incredibly creative was three layers of mousse presented in a martini glass with a rice and honey cookie and spun sugar topping. I don’t know how this pastry chef keep her cool rolling those spun sugar balls while in a hurry to present.
But the winning dish for the dessert round went to Amy McBride, who aptly named her dessert “Everything Beneath the Sky.” Using honey spun into tall peaks, Amy presented tea flavor spun sugar clouds floating over crescent moons of cookies with various flavored mousse layers in between. The different textures of this dish, as well as the plating, really set it apart from the other equally impressive desserts. But that ice cream? I would have stolen Stacey’s if she hadn’t been intent upon tasting it herself.
In the end, all the competing cooks returned to the judge’s tables and we took a moment to commend them on their work. “Get used to compliments,” I told the culinary team, “Serving a dish that the Ritz Carlton would serve is a huge honor!”
After the winners were announced, they received a medal, a commendation for their wall and a large basket of cooking utensils, spices and other items that a chef of any age would be thrilled with. All in all, each basket contained about $1,000 in prizes.
A quick photo including the judges and the winners and we were done. I must say again that I was so honored to be asked to serve on the judges panel. I hope every one of the participants knows how delicious their food was, and how many of the decisions were only a scant few points apart. There was no obvious winner in any of the rounds, in my opinion. Unless you count those of us who got to taste each one!
Congratulations to the winners, Angie Katra, Francisco Alvarez, and Amy McBride, and all the cooks at The Ritz Carlton Sarasota’s White Apron Cooking Contest. You made Chef Yann Chupin very proud!