USC chefs compete in culinary challenge

Carlo Avencena’s seared sake-marinated salmon with edamame flan, sweet and sour kale and crispy Bhutanese rice claimed first place in the fourth-annual USC Culinary Challenge Tuesday at the Radisson at USC. Avencena, Kitchen Manager of the Lab Gastropub, will face the winners of similar competitions from regional universities after outscoring other chefs employed by the University at the cooking battle hosted by USC Hospitality.

The American Culinary Federation-sanctioned event is part of a broader collegiate movement to provide healthier and more nutritious food options to the students and faculty.

The Challenge had two separate cooking competitions where six chefs were timed for an hour and a half to prepare and cook their dishes for three international master chefs flown in as judges. Though they could choose their center plate, the chefs were given mandatory ingredients to construct their dishes. The chefs were graded on a numerical scale, with points given for sanitation, organization, flavor, plating and cooking technique.

The winners of the first competition were Olga Cordon and Yesina Duran from EVK with their version of cultivated mushroom cakes with rad na rice noodles and edamame sauce.

The second competition was among the chefs on campus, who volunteered and brought their own recipes. Avencena, the winner of this culinary competition, will continue on to a regional competition, and then the winner of that will go on to the national competition hosted by the National Association of College & University Food Services.

Erik Russell, associate director of residential dining, said that the competition is a way to change the perception of what USC Hospitality is trying to do with on-campus dining.

“A lot of people think that we just serve frozen food on campus and that is not what we do. This is just a way to highlight and showcase what we are trying to do,” Russell said. “We are working toward more transparent, more local, sustainable, organic ingredients and really elevating the quality and flavor game.”

The University provides chefs working at restaurants like Seeds, Morton Fig and Café 84 with educational opportunities to advance their culinary careers. These opportunities include monthly meetings with Executive Chef Eric Ernest and a certification program with the ACF to become a certified chef, according to Assistant Vice President of Auxiliary Services Kris Klinger. Klinger attests that teaching Hospitality’s chefs this thoroughly is important to improving the quality of dining hall cuisine.

“We want our chefs to be globally trained, ready and built to explore flavor combinations and classical cooking techniques for sustainable futures and healthy and nutritional food options,” Klinger said. “If we consume ourselves with learning about what is fresh and what is quality, and we develop under that, then that is what we are going to have in mind when we are making our next menu.”

Although this schooling gives the chefs a strong foundation to work with, Ernest was excited about how the competition challenged Hospitality’s chefs.

“Schooling gives you a baseline of skills, and then this is us being able to explore certain ingredients,” Ernest said. “But this competition challenges us to take it to the next level, and maybe we make an edamame foam or maybe we flavor that foam with something that matches the flavor of our dish. That is what is exciting for our chefs.”

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Executive Chef Eric Ernest’s name. The Daily Trojan regrets the error.