As many as 250 chefs and college food service and industry professionals from six Northeast states and eastern Canada will be cooking up ideas next week at the State University of New York at Cobleskill.
Aside from professional talks and training, a highlight of Tuesday through Friday events will be competition among a select group of chefs to prepare the best meal of striped sea bass, said Peter Napolitano, SUNY Cobleskill’s director of dining services.
This year’s annual regional conference of the National Association of College and University Food Services is being pitched as “Spring Training in Cobleskill.” Participants will attend a Wednesday reception at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and a dinner at the nearby Otesaga Hotel.
A first for the local campus, the conference has been in the works since July, Napolitano said Thursday.
Part of the theme also focuses on Cobleskill’s agricultural community.
“It’s a food to fork program,” he said.
Discussions will include area farmers and other speakers on sustaining local agriculture by using locally produced food.
While not strictly local, the striped bass for the competition are a species that run up the Hudson River from the Atlantic Ocean. The actual fish being used will come from a commercial seafood supplier in Albany, Napolitano said.
Discussions of other environment-friendly topics, such as composting and reducing cafeteria waste, are also planned.
At the Culinary Challenge on Thursday, chefs from eight schools will compete under the watchful eye of three professional certified chefs from the American Culinary Federation.
While the most important criteria is taste, judges will rate a precise list of guidelines.
“Competitors will be demonstrating their knife-handling skills and their blend of spices and herbs,” Napolitano said. Judges will also consider the texture, taste and quality of the food and its presentation, he said.
Competitors will get a whole 21⁄2-pound bass to prepare with whatever side dishes they choose. Original recipes must have been submitted months ago, however.
Little things can mean a lot, noted SUNY Cobleskill Executive Chef David Phelps.
As hosts, Cobleskill chefs will not be competing, but Phelps recalled the scrutiny of judges when he competed with a scallop dish at a similar event about 10 years ago in Massachusetts.
They didn’t agree with his interpretation of a coulis (sauce), Phelps acknowledged with a shrug.
Competitors can be disqualified for a variety of reasons, including unsafe food handling, violations of uniform codes, disorganization and even tardiness.
“Each will be given an hour to prepare their ingredients and then one hour to produce and put it all together,” Napolitano said.
Competitors are expected from the University of Connecticut, the University of New Hampshire, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Rochester, Harvard, Cornell, Phillips Exeter Academy and SUNY Geneseo.
Observers are welcome, and some students from SUNY Cobleskill’s culinary programs and dining hall staffs will also help make sure programs run smoothly, Napolitano said.
“Students are there to be supportive and learn,” he said. “They’ll see certified executive chefs and watch their techniques.”
Students and local staff will receive a rare chance to watch “how [chefs] handle their knives, how they prepare the plate and broiling or steaming techniques,” Napolitano said.
Staged at 15-minute intervals, chefs will compete from about 2 to 5 p.m. Thursday in Prentice Dining Hall.
Live closed-circuit video will feed images of their work to viewers gathered around nearby screens.
The winner will compete in a national conference competition in Washington in July.
Also Thursday, 97 vendors of food service equipment and supplies will be staffing booths in the college gym in Bouck Hall.
A committee from SUNY schools at New Paltz, Cortland, Geneseo and Cobleskill as well as Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., and Syracuse University have been planning the event for months, said Napolitano, this year’s chairman.
Serving the needs of the varied participants was a team effort, he said.
In some ways, it’s not unlike the complexities of running SUNY Cobleskill’s five dining halls that Napolitano said serve about 800,000 meals a year, in a nearly round-the-clock operation that serves late-night sandwiches and snacks until 2 a.m. on campus.
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