May 7, 2006
UC Davis Food Olympics

And they say young people can’t cook. But Sunday, I came across about 40 who not only can but can with imagination, spontaneity, gusto and speed.

Of course, it helps that they are grad students in food science and technology at UC Davis, and that as motivation they were competing for gift certificates to Starbucks and IKEA.

The event was the fifth annual Food Olympics in and about Cruess Hall. The students helped form eight teams of four to eight members each.

Actually, one team, Cook the Books, was made up solely of faculty and staff of the food science and technology department. Given its, well, culinary experience, it seemed to be the favored team to take home the perpetual trophy, the Silver Spoon, a perspective endorsed by Karen Gurley, the department manager. "We’re going to kick the students’ butts," she crowed at the outset of one of four events in which the teams competed, Culinary Combat, inspired by and similar in format to the "Iron Chef" television series.

Shortly before they were to start cooking at a series of small stations and ranges in a lab in the hall, the teams were given boxes of 28 "super-secret" ingredients, ranging from dried shiitake mushrooms and bratwurst to a single bottle of beer and six slices of white bread. The oddest were green food coloring and a jar of vegetable baby food.

I was one of three judges who would taste and score the 31 dishes the teams created. I can’t speak for the others, both of the Culinary Institute of America at St. Helena in the Napa Valley - Chris Loss, who teaches food safety and nutrition, and Stephen Durfee, a baking and pastry instructor - but I’ve had my fill of vanilla yogurt, cream cheese, mango and feta for the rest of the year. They also were among the 28 secret ingredients, all of which each team was required to use in the three to five dishes they would prepare.

Cooking competitions are fun to judge, but they aren’t without risk. I was reminded of this twice Sunday. First, when we were handed "indemnity agreements" soon after we walked in, swearing that we wouldn’t sue the university’s regents in the event of psychological trauma, catastrophic injuries, scratches, bruises, sprains and "embarrassment." Then, when we found that students often hadn’t removed the bones from the trout. Nonetheless, we seem to have survived without a scratch, though competing students may feel we should be embarrassed by our voting.

In staggered starts, each team had 90 minutes to prepare their meals. I’m not an intuitive cook, and admire anyone who can look into a basically bare cupboard and refrigerator and nonetheless assemble a dinner flavorful, colorful and wholesome.

The students weren’t working with a bare pantry, just a weirdly stocked one, and yet they turned out one artful and balanced composition after another in just an hour and a half. The team Saucee came up with an inspired take on fish and chips - seared trout finished with a brown butter sauce, accompanied with thin slices of fried root vegetables - and got extra points for deftly hiding the baby food under a stuffed tomato.

The Fairfield Foodies, a team made up of students and alumni who work at the Budweiser brewery in Fairfield, was the only team to think of using its beer to entice the judges with a cup off to the side, sparking it up with a dash of lemon, but it was still a Bud Light and might have hurt rather than helped their chances.

My single favorite dish was a big, bright crepe stuffed with balsamic seasoned trout, shiitake mushrooms and basil, topped with a salsa of mango and tomatoes, by What’s That Team’s Name?

We Want to Beat Michelle’s Team came up with a wonderfully zesty and layered Thai soup in a bread bowl, while Wineaux deep-fried its trout whole, twisted it into a swimming pose for a striking presentation, and served it with a lively ginger, basil and lime cream sauce.

Wineaux, indeed, ended up the day’s big winner, taking first place not only in the cooking segment but racking up the most points overall. Other events included a College Bowl-like quiz show, an engineering segment in which teams had to rig up contraptions to keep eggs from breaking when they’re dropped from a ladder about 12 feet tall, and a golf tournament with produce substituted for balls.

Cook the Books won the golf tournament, but didn’t finish in the top three overall.

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