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SOUTH PORTLAND – Lindsay Bradeen has decided it’s time to “go big or go home.”
“‘Into the Flow’ for 500,” she says confidently.
“There you go, the biggie,” replies Chef Geoffrey Boardman, Bradeen’s teacher, coach and the culinary version of Alex Trebek.
Boardman reads the “Jeopardy”-style question Bradeen has chosen from the board: “From top to bottom, what order should duck, ground beef, salmon and strawberries be stored?”
Ding! Bradeen’s team hits the bell by the time the word “salmon” comes out of the coach’s mouth.
So goes a practice session for a half-dozen culinary arts students at Southern Maine Community College who are leaving Thursday for the Northeast Region Baron H. Galand Culinary Knowledge Bowl, in Hershey, Pa.
This is the first year a Maine school has sent a team to the competition, which is sponsored by the American Culinary Federation, and the budding chefs have been taking the challenge as seriously as Saturday-night dinner service.
The team has been studying for months, squeezing in meetings after classes and between work shifts at local restaurants to study and practice. They quiz each other on everything from proper work attire to the length of time that housemade chicken salad held at 41 degrees can be stored in the refrigerator.
(The answer to Bradeen’s question, by the way, is strawberries, salmon, ground beef, then duck. It’s based on the internal cooking temperature of the food.)
While the students have received some sponsorships, they have raised most of the money they need to go to the Culinary Knowledge Bowl themselves by holding bake sales on campus every Friday. Of the $10,000 they needed to make the trip a reality, more than $6,000 came from the sale of their muffins, cookies and whoopie pies.
If they win in Pennsylvania, they’ll get an all-expenses-paid trip to Anaheim, Calif., for the national competition. The winners at the finals get trophies, a plaque for their school and bragging rights as national champions.
The way Boardman sees it, even if the SMCC team loses in Hershey, the students still win.
“It’s broadening their experience outside of Maine because they’re going to be meeting chefs from the whole Northeast area of the United States, which has got the biggest number of restaurants of all four (regions),” Boardman said.
“There are a lot of the top restaurants around here, too. So win, lose or draw, they will get all that experience and the networking that goes along with it.”
And yes, they will be touring the Hershey chocolate factory while they’re in town.
“You had me at Hershey,” Michael Kusuma, 27, of Kennebunkport told Bradeen when she first tried to recruit him for the team.
The Culinary Knowledge Bowl is a “Jeopardy”-style game — it even has Daily Doubles — but the answers don’t have to be posed in the form of a question. That was a hard habit for the students to break after years of watching Alex Trebek correct contestants on the TV game show.
CATEGORIES TO MAKE YOU WINCE
“When we first started doing the rounds, everyone would buzz in and say, ‘What is,’ ” said Bradeen, who organized the SMMC group.
The categories in previous years have covered a wide range of subjects, from nutrition to restaurant management. Last year, students were quizzed on topics such as basic saute principles, quick breads, tools and equipment, and Escoffier’s cooking technique.
“When we first started our practices, there were categories on there that I just winced at,” said 19-year-old Crystal Cassette of Saco. “It really, in black and white, shows you what you need to work on and improve.”
Brett Cary, a 22-year-old student from Cape Elizabeth, thinks the prep work for the Culinary Knowledge Bowl has helped him retain more when he studies for his regular classes. He finds himself paying more attention and getting better grades in nutrition class because he knows whatever he learns there might help him in the competition.
Nick Ault, 22, of Brewer says the competition is bringing added stress to his life, “but we’re having fun with it.”
In the beginning, all the questions about Escoffier gave Ault some trouble.
“I hadn’t really heard much about the guy, just that he was one of the fathers (of culinary arts),” Ault said. “So until I cracked open that book and got a couple of chapters into it, it was all over my head.”
Ault said the experience has taught him that there’s always something new to learn, and that he needs to trust his instincts more.
“You’re always told through grade school if you have a gut feeling on a multiple choice question, go for it,” he said. “I found myself sitting here just wondering if I should ring the bell or not, and then the answer comes up and I knew that I knew it. I guess it’s a small risk, but you’ve really got nothing to lose by taking a shot at it.”
It’s important to be fast on the draw with the buzzer, but not too fast. (A small bell is used during practice, and a “Jeopardy”-style buzzer during the actual competition.) The students can’t see the full question until after the proctor has read it, so a trigger finger might get them into trouble if someone presses the buzzer when they’ve only heard three or four words.
“I can’t even tell you how many times they’ll ring in on a question, and then they’ll just have a little pow-wow together,” said Chef Tony Poulin, another one of the coaches. “And they’ll say the answer in their little conversation, and then talk themselves right out of it.”
The competition has taught the students how to work as a team, make quick decisions and listen to their instincts — all skills that will come in handy in the kitchen.
Even after preparing for the past five to six months, it’s “hard to say” how well the Maine team will do in Pennsylvania, says Cary.
“I have no idea what to expect, really,” he said. “I hope that all the other students are just as busy as all of us. I hope that they all have to go to work and are living the culinary life.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org