SOUTH PORTLAND — The kitchens at Southern Maine Community College’s Culinary Arts Center were heating up Sunday morning as 10 young chefs from around the Northeast faced off in the regional rounds of an international cooking competition.
The Chaine des Rotisseurs’ Jeunes Chefs Rotisseur Competition was under way. The chefs, all under the age of 27, came with varied levels of experience. Constestants Casey Taylor, 19, of Kennebunk and Audrey Carlson, 19, of Sanford, are SMCC students while others had been cooking professionally for years.
Founded in Paris in 1248, the Chaine des Rotisseurs is the world’s oldest international gastronomic society. The society has sponsored the annual competition since 1977. The winners of each of the 10 regional events will go on to compete at the national level. The national winner will go to the international competition in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Winning the top spot is a career maker. The winner takes home $50,000 in prizes and an addition to the resume that will open the door to executive chef positions at the best restaurants.
The competitors had four hours to design, cook and present a three-course meal, each using the same mystery market basket that contained a lobster, mussels, Maine shrimp, a cod fish, two artichokes, two Belgian endives and a red pepper. They also could draw from a long list of other ingredients, including dairy products, fruit, vegetables, spices and herbs, eggs, liquors and wines.
By 10 a.m. the competitors looked a lot like home cooks in the final stretches of preparing a Thanksgiving dinner. Faces were flushed. Hands simultaneously whisked and chopped.
The din of clattering pans rose in the background. A decadent combination of smells involving sizzling butter, boiling lobster and melting chocolate wafted up from the stoves.
Aaron Smith, 20, a student at the Schenectady County Community College in Albany, N.Y., sliced paper-thin wedges of apple while keeping an eye on his perfectly shaped potato croquettes ready to go into the oven.
“It is actually going good, but yes, I am nervous,” said Smith.
The market basket couldn’t have been better designed for Keith Andersen, 26, a chef at Legal Harborside in Boston, the flagship restaurant in the Legal Sea Foods chain.
“I am cooking grilled lobster and artichoke romanesco,” said Andersen. He said he was managing to keep calm.
“When you have a 200-person dinner for John Kerry, that is when you get panicked,” said Andersen.
A team of kitchen judges watched and rated the competitors in different categories, such as knife skills, organization, professionalism, product utilization – waste is a no-no in the restaurant world – sanitation and timing.
Judge Jill Hannaford, chef at SMCC’s McKernan Hospitality Center, observed that only two of the competitors were keeping their seafood on ice.
A panel of five tasting judges, including several nonprofessionals, rated the results. Wilfred Beriau, recently retired SMCC culinary arts department chairman, said the job of judging 10 appetizers, 10 entrees and 10 desserts requires restraint, especially given the reservation he had at Fore Street restaurant in Portland Sunday night.
“Only mouse bites,” he said.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: