Bru-slaw puts team on top in UND’s ‘Chopped’ cooking contest
Finalists mince vegetables, not words, when talking about joy of friendly competition
The great thing about being the special projects editor at UND Today is that you sometimes land unexpected fringe benefits, such as being asked to judge the fine cuisine in a student cooking contest. Professional food critics need not apply … I got this!
— Janelle Vonasek
The stakes were high and the steaks medium-rare last week, as the final three teams put on the plastic gloves to punch it out in the 2022 Student Chopped Competition’s championship round.
Now in its seventh year, the contest hosted by UND Dining Services and UND Housing & Residence Life is modeled after the Food Network’s popular game show “Chopped,” in which professional chefs compete against the clock and each other by concocting tasty dishes out of some of the most unlikely and unappetizing ingredients — take, for example (and for real!), pickled pig lips, chicken feet and cold-smoked kippers with the beady eyes intact.
During the reality show, expert chefs and restaurateurs judge and critique the competitors’ dishes based on taste, presentation and creativity. The last chef to survive the chopping block wins the $10,000 prize.
Thankfully, for me and the other judges at Thursday’s event in Wilkerson Dining Center, there were no recognizable animal parts, and the food — with the exception of maybe the Brussels sprouts — was safe for even the fussiest of palettes.
“Tonight, they were spoiled,” said Dustin Frize, UND Dining Services dietician, with a laugh. “We gave them beef tenderloin, a very tender piece of meat. It’s kind of hard to mess that one up.”
Even so, finalists Threat Level Medium Rare, Team Korea and Cloud City weren’t taking any chances. They had planned, practiced and worked out most of their kitchen kinks during preliminary rounds earlier in the week.
On this night, the recipes were fine-tuned. The dicing and spicing duties were divvied up. The saucing and tossing tasks were sorted. Now, all they had left was to add the flavor, the flair and the fun.
“That’s really the whole goal of this event,” Frize said. “It’s so much fun to see the smiles on their faces and watch them showcase some of their cooking talents.
“It’s more of a feel-good program for our students. They get to compete and win some nice prizes, and we get to put some of their creative recipes on our menu down the road.”
A-tisket, a-tasket, a must-use basket
Besides the beef tenderloin and Brussels sprouts, the teams had three other “must-use” ingredients in their market baskets. They would need to incorporate pre-cooked wild rice, fresh avocado and Flourish High-Fiber Flour into their final dish. Plus, a sixth “secret” ingredient was revealed shortly before the contest was set to begin.
No problem, said Adison McCollum of Cloud City. The spicy staple called Mike’s Hot Honey would blend perfectly with the neatly sliced carne asada and homemade tortillas they would dress with a side of Spanish-style rice, grilled vegetables and flavorful guacamole salsa.
“I think the spicy honey is going to come through more than expected,” McCollum said. “I’m excited because I think everything is going to come out beautifully.”
Teammates and roommates Micah Tollefson and Caleb Swenby agreed. It would be a tough competition, but the team had years of Grandpa-taught grilling techniques on its side.
“The secret is all in a good sear,” Tollefson said. “Really high heat makes great meat.”
At another cooking station, Isaac Balmer of Threat Level Medium Rare said his team was feeling pretty confident. They were there to redeem themselves after a narrow defeat two years earlier.
“As long as we’re having fun, I think we’ll do great,” Balmer said. “And I think we’ve learned that creativity goes a long way. We don’t want to be just like everyone else.”
Added teammate Ryan Lemker: “Yeah, we didn’t want to do just steak. We knew we wanted to do something special with it.”
Likewise, Anna Lambertz knew her personal specialty, mac-n-cheese, just wouldn’t cut it. Sydney Menne would need to put her all into a “bru-slaw,” a tasty mix of bright peppers, Brussels sprouts and red cabbage.
Wild rice and tender strips of seasoned beef were topped by the slaw, and the whole works was wrapped in tortillas hand-rolled with a can of nonstick cooking spray. The dish was accompanied by a cup of homemade salsa.
As for Team Korea, they displayed adroit two-handed knife skills, some of the most impressive the judges had ever seen. They were busy creating something fancy of their own — a marinated steak patty infused with a tangy Korean barbecue sauce.
Teammates Hyunsik Joo, Sungjong Kim and Dongkwang Kang, who joked that they had trained at the YouTube Academy of Culinary Arts, said they took their cues from both Korean and French cuisine.
And they made perhaps the most innovative of all the dishes: a creamy avocado soup that they garnished with a sprinkle of sesame, greens and a single toasted crouton. Meanwhile, a spoon was all one needed to sample the perfectly plated steak patty paired with a roasted Brussels sprout and a light-and-fluffy fried rice. The dish was both delicious and beautiful.
Winnowing down the winners
This being my first experience judging a cooking contest, I can tell you that the tasting was my favorite part.
The judging, not so much.
The dishes the teams had prepared were nothing short of superb, and I didn’t want to play any part in deciding what teams would take home the swanky, indoor smokeless grills, the Insta-Pot Multi-Cookers or the KitchenAid electric hand mixers. (“C’mon, don’t make me do it,” I kept thinking as I tasted one delightful creation after another.)
Nevertheless, we had to tally the score sheets and declare a winner. First place went to Threat Level Medium Rare. Squeaking in within a mere point difference apiece, Cloud City placed second and Team Korea, third.
But thanks to more than $1,300 donated by generous sponsors Sysco North Dakota, Bay State Milling and the Guiding Stars Nutrition Rating System, there were even more winners in the house.
Guests of the dining center were able to enter their names in a raffle to win prizes that ranged from Target gift cards, mini food processors and popcorn makers to cutting boards, electric egg cookers and a wok.
All in all, the night was a great success.
“It was just really cool to have everyone out here showing their culinary skills and their appreciation for that kind of art,” Cloud City’s Tollefson said.
Added McCollum: “Yeah, all of us came to college in 2020, so we were kind of locked up in our dorm rooms. It feels great to get campus activities back.”
Indeed it does. And as this judge will testify, having leftovers to take home isn’t so bad either.