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Tattoo Artist and Lincoln Culinary Student Wins Regional S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Contest

January 15th, 2011 · No Comments

Mckevitt with trophy

With a dish called Bounty of the Rockies –  a trio of lamb including a Denver rib, a rack chop and lamb sausage – Lincoln Culinary Institute student Christopher Mckevitt won the  Southeast regional title in the Almost Famous San Pellegrino Chef competition. The annual contest was held at Le Cordon Bleu in Mirarmar.

Eight students from four schools competed for a chance to go to the finals in Napa Valley in March, and for grand prizes worth $20,000 and a chance to work with top chefs as a paid apprentice.

Mckevitt is a 46-year-old career-changing chef and a tattoo parlor owner from Stuart, Fla. “I’ve always been an artist – painting, sculpture, tattoos”

What led him to cooking school? “I’ve always cooked – I love it. I was watching Top Chef, and said, ‘I can do that!’ and just decided to go to culinary school.” He runs Gothic City Tattoos (see editor’s note below) in Stuart, and has won several international awards for his tattoo art.

The student chef has four months to go of schooling, and gives credit to all his mentors, particularly Chef-instructor James Kayeh. “The mentoring from the judges today was priceless.”

His goal is to open a restaurant, maybe, he said. “It’ll be called Tattoo – of course.”

Mckevitt's lamb trio plate

His dish included a blueberry-glazed Denver rib and house-made sausage that wowed the judges, along with a corn cake, chili-dusted vegetables and jicama slaw to complement the meats.

All had won their school’s contest to get to the top two slots for the regional competition. All had weeks of practice to perfect their entry, working with chefs at their schools and other students as well.  “I made this dish about 50 times,” Mckevitt said. “But a million things can still go wrong.”

Tough chef judges

Students were given two hours to prepare eight plates for judges and presentation, then were grilled by judges as they presented. They were judged on how well they could articulate the inspiration for the dish, how it was executed and answer technique questions.

On every plate, there was some component that was done very well, the judges said. Most were attractively plated with portions in line for a typical restaurant entree. All but one student made the time limit: two hours to prep and cook, and 5 minutes to plate up the dishes before immediately serving the judges.

Judges were looking for an overall successful plate, a student who executed the dish well with proper techniques, and showed confidence before an audience.


Judging table

It is as important that the chef be able to deal with the public, and take questions from them as well as execute the dish in a “real world” setting, said judge Ralph Pagano, chef at STK in Miami. “Not that there isn’t enough pressure in a contest setting – but it’s different on a line when you have orders coming in for four at a time or six of this and eight of ala minute dishes — in minutes – not hours. Then you have to walk into the dining room and talk to your diners.”

Dewey LoSasso, chef at The Forge in Miami, spent time in the kitchen with the students as they worked, watching techniques and seeing how they reacted to questions as they worked – “messing with them,” he said.

He quizzed a few and was surprised that some didn’t know of the Slow Food movement, yet knew all about molecular cuisine. “Shouldn’t they know the classics of cooking, and learn about heirloom foods – and where it all started?”he wondered.

One student who exuded confidence couldn’t tell the judge who Alice Waters was, raising eyebrows among all the experienced chefs. “Don’t they teach gastronomy history anymore in culinary school?” one wondered.

LoSasso noted somen basic techniques were overlooked in favor of modern molecular cooking. “This rice isn’t right – a staple and a major part of this particular dish. He focused on spherification, which failed, and got the simplest thing wrong, too.” Points were taken off the 50-point perfect score for these types of flaws.

Later, he pointed out a basic meat-cooking misstep. “This pork chop has really good flavor, but the student needs to know when he prepares it like this, bone-in, the meat next to the bone will cook more slowly than the outside. In this case, it’s undercooked — you can’t serve undercooked pork. This is meat cooking 101.”

Judge-chef Andrea Curto-Randazzo of The Water Club in Miami also was disappointed that basic techniques seemed lacking – maybe due to the nerves of the cooks under pressure. “We saw a lot of waste in the kitchen – it would never happen in a real restaurant. The students need to learn how to skin salmon, or cut vegetables. If you do it right, there’s little waste – that’s just a basic technique.”

Chef Andre Bienvenue of Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami saw that several student chefs had tried molecular cuisine, but most had failed. He, too, wondered if getting the basics right should be first on the student chefs’ minds rather than getting too creative. “They’ve had plenty of practice,” he said. Several dishes that should have been simple to execute in the allotted time came to the judges under cooked or lacking the most important element – true flavor, he said.

Randazzo noted several plates that had vegetables added simply for color and nothing else. “If they don’t really go with the dish or add to it, leave it off.”

Other dishes

Poached seabass

Several lamb dishes were prepared this year, along with a pork chop, a cioppino, and a contender for top spot, a poached seabass served with red quinoa. Student chef Charles Deibert, also of Lincoln Culinary Institute, prepared the “healthy alternative” dish.

Deibert, who brought his young sons to watch him compete, congratulated schoolmate Mckevitt good-naturedly – “I just can’t seem to beat you!”

Judges were impressed with the perfectly poached bass, red pepper coulis and especially, Deibert’s well spoken description and articulation. “He showed great confidence talking to us,” Pagano said.

Students who competed came from Lincoln Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach, Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Miramar, Johnson & Wales University in Miami and Jose A. Santana International School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts in Puerto Rico.


Editor’s Note: The name of Christopher Mckevitt’s tattoo shop has been corrected from an earlier post.

Tags: Today in the World of Food

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