The Times West Virginian

January 30, 2014

Pierpont culinary team prepares for regional competition: PHOTOS

By Chelsi Baker
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — After winning a bronze medal at the state level, the Pierpont culinary team will move on to compete in the American Culinary Foundation’s Northeast Regional Conference in April.

The Pierpont culinary team was prepared to compete in the American Culinary Federation’s West Virginia Hot Foods Competition against two other teams from the state for a chance in the regional competition in Providence, R.I.

However, it ended up winning by default. The competing teams were forced to forfeit the competition, leaving Pierpont to claim the spot.

One team originally competing lost its coach shortly before the state competition, and the other was unable to practice for the cookoff because of the recent chemical spill in Charleston.

“We’ve never been able to do that before because we’ve usually won. In fact, this is our sixth time out of eight years we’ve been state champs, and this is the only time we’ve won by default,” said team coach and Pierpont Culinary Academy’s culinary coordinator Jay Mahoney.

The three judges, who traveled from Georgia, Florida and Alabama for the competition, came and scored Pierpont as though the other teams were there.

The American Culinary Federation judges competitors using a grade point scale based on national standards. In a normal competition, the team with the most points wins.

A team doesn’t have to win a gold medal to win the competition.

The team earned 31.52 of a possible 40 points at the state level, which was one point away from the silver medal.

“To me, it wasn’t the medals,” Mahoney said. “It was getting them the experience so when they move to the next level and compete against the 14 states, they’ve got some experience. It was really priceless for the judges to come here and treat this just like the other two teams were here competing against us.”

Although the judges gave an overall positive critique, experience is key, Mahoney said, because everyone on the team is a first-time competitor.

“This team is somewhat younger than some of our other teams in terms of experience,” said Pierpont Culinary Academy’s executive director Brian Floyd. “We’ve had teams where we’ve had a returning member or two or three that have been to a state or national competition. This was their first competition, so having that critique from the judges will be an invaluable resource as we prepare for the regional competition.”

Students initially register for a competition cooking class at Pierpont, and then they can try out to participate in the competitions. The class usually has around eight members, but only five can be part of the culinary team.

This year, Pamela Stevens, Joseph Friend, Donald Griseto, William Prunty and Sarah Johnson will compete.

Members of the class who aren’t on the team work with those who made the team and learn the same skills while they’re in the class. However, team members often practice and prepare after class or on weekends during competition time.

The team began preparation for the regional conference last week.

The competition begins with a skills test that judges how well students cut and prepare meat, fish and vegetables, as well as pastries. The judges will choose students at random to perform the skills-test tasks, so every student must be proficient at every task.

A hot meal, which consists of four courses, is next. The team will craft four servings of each course — one plate for each judge and a display plate.

The conference concludes with construction of a cold food platter that must serve eight people.

The American Culinary Federation chooses one dish from a classic French cookbook and requires each team to prepare it as part of the meal.

“The idea behind that is to get the students to remember these old classic dishes,” Mahoney said. “We study it, but it’s hard to study because it’s actually an English translation from a French cookbook from a couple hundred years ago. The interpretation can be very different. We’ve gone to regionals, and people have entirely different ideas of what it is because these recipes are complex and hard to decipher.”

After the team learns what dish it’s required to make, members plan the rest of the menu around it so it all makes sense together.

Mahoney prefers not to unveil the menu until the end of the regional competition to ensure the team’s success.

“We like to keep the menu secret until after we go to regionals because somebody might see it and say something to one of the other teams,” he said. “We’ve had that happen, where someone saw what we were doing and liked the ideas and did some of them.”

The team prepares each of the four courses every week and goes through all the tasks in the skills portion to prepare and get everything perfect before doing it for the judges.

“Not only does this teach them how to work together as a team, but it teaches them a lot about details. Minute details,” said Mahoney. “Every week, it’s very frustrating for them to hear, ‘You did this wrong. You did that wrong.’ But when it’s all over, they have a respect for how much attention they have to pay to details after taking this class. I really feel like they leave with a real understanding of what it’s like to go out in the industry and do what’s required to be successful in the business.”

This attention to detail will help students stack up against the larger and competitive schools in the Northeast, Floyd said.

“When we go to these competitions, teams from all over the Northeast see this team coming from West Virginia,” he said. “They see that we come in well-prepared, well-poised, professional in our work and our dress. It helps to perpetuate positive attributes to West Virginia and to our school.

“We’ve had great support from the administration. I think Pierpont sees our culinary team as a real highlight within our programs and something that fosters community support. It’s a visible sign of some of the strong teaching and hands-on programs that we have at Pierpont.”

As an instructor and coach, Mahoney wants his students to come out of the competition with a medal and a sense of accomplishment, but also with experience and valuable skills that will help them in their careers.

“I just want them to go up and have a good time with this experience. Of course I want them to medal, but I just want them to experience it together,” he said. “We’re going to compete against the best culinary schools in the country, and for a little Fairmont, W.Va., community and technical college to get there, that’s satisfying in itself.”

Email Chelsi Baker at cbaker@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @CBakerTWV.