On a cool, spring day at the University of Southern California Gala Center, six semi-finalists were cramped into a small, hot and tension-filled kitchen. Knives flashed and hot pans crowded the stovetop. Mystery vegetables lounged in the steamer. No one spoke except the announcer warning “30 minutes to time,” or “hot pan behind you” and “careful oven opening” from one chef to another. From the judges panel there was only “indistinct murmuring.” This was the scene when two of UC Irvine’s finest executive chefs earned top honors at the Aramark Regional Higher Education Culinary Competition.
The competing chefs each made three dishes. Competitor and executive chef at Pippin commons, Ryan Jaranilla (known in the kitchen as Chef Ryan), moved to the finals with a glass noodle cold salad paired with a hot barbequed pork stick, followed by an Asian-inspired sesame ginger salmon atop a seafood paella medley. A red button rice base (rather than the more common, higher caloric rice base) added a healthy touch to the dish, which was topped off by a coconut crème brulée presented in shaved coconut shells with a mango-coconut (non-alcoholic) shot.
All of the ingredients came from a “pantry list” of possible ingredients, and the dishes needed to stay within a specific monetary range. The judging focused on cooking techniques, such as proper sautéing or different chopping techniques, as well as how the flavors of the chosen ingredients mixed, the nutritional value of the dishes and finally, the presentation.
Parts of Chef Ryan’s menu will be served in the next few weeks at Pippin commons, bringing the creativity back to the students.
“They give us 100 percent free range. … The conceptualization from raw material to the finished product, up to the time when you receive your food, is where [Pippin] is going now,” Jaranilla said. This also includes a full “exhibition” of serving, which means students will get to see their meal made in front of them. They will also often get to choose the specific ingredients they want.
This summer Chef Ryan will travel as one of the senior executive chefs for the Beijing Olympics. This trip marks the culmination of four years of work to become an Olympic chef. The Olympics take into account everything the chef does, including an emphasis on healthy eating habits, innovative dining forms and individual customer satisfaction. And like the experience at the Aramark competition, Jaranilla will bring this Olympic experience back to UCI by cooking Olympic-inspired meals next fall quarter.
On the other side of campus, Charles Johnson, executive chef of Mesa commons and a finalist in the March competition, is also working with an interactive style of presentation. Starting this quarter, Mesa offers a rotating salad bar with a food service member who makes a custom, organic salad for students. There are 10 possible salad combinations and a new one is available for both lunch and dinner each day of the week.
Chef Johnson fell into cooking after being a Navy officer. He was trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. His Indian-themed meal’s first course was a curry crab crepe, followed by an invented calcutta chicken lasagna: chicken breast lasagna with curry, vegetables and handmade chicken sausage. This was all followed by a ginger crème brule, which turned out very well, much to Chef Johnson’s surprise.
“I’m not really great at dessert. That’s not my thing. But that came out pretty well. The judges commented that it was the best thing. So something I wasn’t expecting to help me actually did,” Johnson said. The Indian theme reflects Chef Johnson’s first cookbook, an Indian cook book that he purchased following a meal at an especially good Indian restaurant before he became a trained culinary artist.
This summer Chef Johnson will represent the Western Region in a National competition in Chicago. The June competition presents two new variables, such as a basket of mystery ingredients to incorporate fully into the meal and, secondly, Chef Johnson will work with two other non-local chefs to create a blended menu. The logistics of creating this menu when the three men live at different ends of the coast is one of the more difficult challenges to overcome.
The purpose of the Aramark competition is to inspire chefs to reach a higher degree of excellence and creativity. It includes over 400 institutions of higher education. Residential Manager Robert Perez, stated that this is just another branch of the new changes going on in residential dining at UCI.
“We are going to be known as a flagship corporation within the UC system and within Aramark,” Perez said. “We’re going to have experts in culinary, marketing and people who do research with students to make adjustments to our food program to really make it stand out.” With this focus on customer satisfaction and the competitive edge Chefs Ryan and Johnson provide, Perez hopes that UCI dining will progress from being a life necessity, endured for the first year of collegiate life, to a truly enjoyable culinary experience.