November 30, 2021

A taste for competition

SUNY Cortland dining services employees face off at Culinary Boot Camp

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

A culinary boot camp team group prepares chicken, tofu, and salad greens while a chef observes.

The dining hall that was once populated by college students is now quiet, disrupted only by the occasional excited whisper. After a week of intensive cooking classes, today was when newfound skills would be put to the test.

SUNY Cortland Auxiliary Services had its annual Culinary Boot Camp, training a dozen dining service employees from all backgrounds — managers, cashiers, cooks, and others. After four days of classes, covering everything from knife skills to culinary math, food safety to plating and presentation, participants were now about to compete in a team cooking exam to show off what they learned.

Three groups of four huddle together, talking through the game plans they brainstormed all week, from May 17 to May 21. The training chef gives the signal. The first group is up — and the clock is ticking.

The kitchen becomes a flurry of people washing their hands and diving into the fridge for fresh ingredients. Leafy greens are cleaned and cut, next the carrots, then the tofu. One team member whisks vinaigrette so fast her hand blurs. Another lifts a baking sheet high over his head, pirouetting around his teammate to reach the oven.

Cooking may be an art, but this competition has become a dance.

“I think it really re-energizes everybody,” said Erin Donovan, assistant manager of SUNY Cortland’s Neubig Dining Hall. “You have the same menu every day and you know what you’re doing, so when you get to be able to learn and better your skills, that kind of re-energizes you to come in and give it your best. It’s the tiny little things that make a dish, makes it extra special.”

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

Josh McQuade, a morning cook for SUNY Cortland’s Neubig Dining Hall.

What’s on the menu?

Donovan’s group chose to prepare a seafood dish, blackened cod over a bed of kale with steamed carrots and roasted potatoes, along with a side salad drizzled with a raspberry vinaigrette. As they cook, the smell of garlic and herbs fills the room.

Two of the three groups have fish on the menu. Several boot camp participants admit their lack of experience with seafood, and their excitement to have learned so much throughout the week.

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

One group’s final dish: blackened cod over a bed of kale, with steamed dill baby carrots and roasted garlic potatoes. In the background, a salad.

“As a prep cook, I pretty much chop all the vegetables and cook the sauces,” said Candyce Kotowski, an assistant cook. “What was really different for me was getting to cook the proteins. I’d never had to pan sear fish before, and I’m like, ‘You know, this is really great!’ I don’t ever get to do that, so that was really fun for me.”

Soon, all three groups are working simultaneously, keeping to their separate stations. A large electric fan in the corner keeps the cooks cool in the hot kitchen, while wafting the aroma of pan seared cod and baked chicken with the scent of roasted vegetable medley across the room.

A chef’s eye

Instructors and judges walk silently between kitchens, taking notes on their grading checklist and gesturing approval to the novice chefs as they work.

The culinarians will be graded on their food safety, organization, timeliness, equipment use and care, knife use and safety, following the recipe, and food taste and presentation.

“We encourage everyone to come and learn with us, so we try to find the baseline of what the group’s skill set is, and we do everything from knife skills to herb identification, so each day of training builds to this final day of practice,” said certified Executive Chef Brennen Bush.

It’s a college; learning is for everybody. Cortland Auxiliary Services funds grants to help provide a variety of educational programs and activities at SUNY Cortland, said Frederic Pierce, the college’s director of communications.

“The university deeply values the hard work and significant positive impact the organization continues to have on our students’ lives,” he said.

Two of the chefs in the teaching program, Bush and James Webb, have the title of certified executive chef accredited by the American Culinary Federation. As of 2019, only 3,056 chefs nationwide have the title.

“We enjoy letting (the participants) know that no matter what their part is, they play a big role in the campus experience,” Bush said. “If you feel comfortable about food and you can talk about it, then you are an important part of the process. The thing we stress a lot is that our students are coming to us, and we don’t know their backgrounds or experiences with food. It might be their first time ever trying something, and it’s our job to present it so that it’s always a new and exciting and delicious experience.”

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

Four Cortland Auxiliary Services chefs take notes on a group’s food preparation and knife skills for the Culinary Boot Camp cooking competition.

The moment of truth

Donovan’s team plates their two-course meal, arranging each layer for the best possible presentation for the judges. Now they wait.

Each judge takes time sectioning off a spoonful to try, followed by a series of scribbling on notepads. Next, the team gets to try its own food — a time to consider what it might have done

“Write this one down — ‘Change nothing,’” said group member Josh McQuade, a morning cook, as he goes in for a second spoonful.

After the weeklong immersion, participants who passed their exams received a certificate in food safety and a certificate of achievement. And a ball cap.

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

Erin Donovan, assistant manager at SUNY Cortland’s Neubig Dining Hall, poses with her certificate for completing Culinary Boot Camp

After the group cleans its work station, McQuade and Donovan take a seat for the first time in two hours.

“It’s nice to get out of the typical everyday setting of the kitchen, and you’re in a situation where you’re a little overzealous, thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m probably not gonna learn much from this, it’s gonna be an easy A,’” McQuade said. “Then you come to find that maybe you knew the process but not the name of it, and suddenly you’ve got a plate full of new knowledge and assets that you earned while having fun and getting paid.”

Donovan said her career in hospitality management has led her to the people-side of things, and away from hands-on cooking. This brought her back.

“The meals we put out are a direct reflection of ourselves as people,” McQuade said. “Why would you serve something you wouldn’t want to eat yourself? When you see someone sit down and take their first bite, and you see that smile come across their face – now that’s some great satisfaction.”