The kitchen smelled heavenly as the aroma of spices mingled with chicken, vegetables and fruits, but the clock was ticking and the chefs had little time to savor their handiwork.
“Twenty more minutes,” shouted Chef Ben Pike. “Only twenty more minutes to go.”
The Franklin County Technical School’s Apprentice Restaurant kitchen had been buzzing with activity for over an hour as teams from the school’s Culinary Arts department and state legislators battled to determine the winner of the first annual Massachusetts Legislators and Culinary Students Cooking Competition.
Pike served as host, as he explained the rules, answered questions from contestants, and kept an eye on the clock. Each of the four teams had an hour and a half to whip up an entrée and dessert and attractively present them on plates to be judged by a four person panel.
When it was over FCTS students Shayla Demers from Millers Falls and Kassidy Flores from Turners Falls emerged as the winning team. The two took the top prize with their oregano pepper chicken with cranberry-apple-walnut rice pilaf, and key lime-apple meringue tart with strawberries for dessert.
“It was stressful, but it was a great experience” Flores said. “It was hard, but worth it. The hardest part was getting everything out on time and not messing anything up.”
Her teammate was surprised they won partially because of the caliber of the competition, but she felt a sense of pride at the result.
“I’m incredibly happy,” Demers said. “I’m amazed, but I’m proud of myself. I feel a sense of accomplishment.”
Another FCTS student team made up of Joey Barcomb of Halifax, Vermont and Alix Burnette of Erving came in third place with their spicy teriyaki chicken with rice, and homemade salted caramel ice cream with apples for dessert.
“I thought it went good overall,” Burnette said following the competition. “It wasn’t stressful to me until the last 10 minutes. You had to make sure everything was plated right and that it looked good.”
Rep. Susannah Whipps Lee of Athol and Rep. Paul Mark of Peru earned second place with their bruschetta featuring local goat cheese, sautéed chicken in white wine, roasted potatoes, and a dessert of “adult apple crisp” using apple jack brandy and local cream.
Senate President Stanley Rosenberg of Northampton and Rep. Steve Kulik of Worthington finished fourth with their roast chicken with raisins, apples, honey, asparagus, and a dessert plate of local Macintosh apples, cheeses and local honey.
“There’s a theme to this,” Kulik joked. “That’s how we do legislation.”
The event was based on competitive cooking shows like “Chopped” and, while it was a good natured contest, it featured some of the high tension and hectic pace of that Food Network series as the clock wound down.
The four judges for the competition were FCTS Superintendent Richard J. Martin, Greenfield Community College President Robert Pura, Myron Becker, owner of Chef Myron’s Fine Cooking Sauces, and former FCTS Culinary Arts instructor Paul Abbey.
Each team was given a mystery basket that contained a whole chicken and an apple and was allowed to have the run of the FCTS Culinary Arts program’s kitchen to gather vegetables, spices and whatever else they needed to make their recipes. Many of the ingredients were locally sourced.
Local farms and businesses, Diemand Farm, Hagers Farm Market, Foster’s Supermarket, Greenfields Market, Brattleboro Co-op, Upingill Farm, and Pine Hill Orchard contributed food and products to the event.
A small audience watched a simulcast of the Cooking Competition in the Apprentice Restaurant’s dining room. Vocational Curriculum Director Jocelyn Croft acted as MC as she talked to the crowd about the competition and the Culinary Arts program, and even took some people into the kitchen for short tours.
The Cooking Competition was the brainchild of Pike and Whipps Lee, who have known each other for years. The idea was to promote relationships between local legislators and FCTS students, bring attention to the school's culinary department, highlight locally produced foods, and to raise funds for the Culinary department.
The legislators all had a great time and were pleased that they could shine a light on the school’s Culinary Arts program.
“I thought it would be great for the legislature to show support for the students at the tech school, and to highlight local farms and production,” Kulik said.
Rosenberg added that the event featured “good food, good friends and good fun.”
A graduate of Johnson & Wales University and the former owner of two restaurants, Whipps Lee said it was a treat that she and her fellow legislators got to have fun with their constituents.
“When my colleagues and I are out in Franklin County it’s all business,” Whipps Lee said. “It’s nice to have a play day. We’ve had lunch in the school’s restaurant. I’m so impressed with what the students do here and what they did today.”
Mark mentioned that he was so busy cooking that time seemed to fly by. He said it was important for him and his fellow legislators to participate because it brought attention to Franklin County Technical School’s Culinary program at an opportune time.
“We’re in the middle of budget season so there’s no better time to bring attention to the tech school,” Mark said.
For his part, Pike was pleased that the event showed off the talents of his students and the abundance of homegrown food and other products available in the region.
“I think it highlights our program and I hope it adds more enthusiasm, pride and professionalism to this industry,” he said. “I couldn’t be more proud of the students who won first place and I could see how happy they were and that’s great.”
Martin was happy to host the legislators at the school and to be able to show them the excellent work being done by the students.
“The food competition provided an opportunity for state and local legislators to engage with the students within the communities in which they serve,” he said. “Having state legislators at FCTS to participate in a local event demonstrated their caring and concern for students. The cooking competition was not a political event, but one which encompassed the willingness to serve. Pun intended.”