Student chefs shine at ‘Almost Famous’ competition in Las Vegas
Sat, Feb 23, 2013 (6:45 p.m.)
Photo: Brock Radke
For 10 years now, S. Pellegrino sparkling natural mineral water and Acqua Panna natural spring water—two popular brands under the Nestle label—have been providing culinary students from across the country with the opportunity to show their kitchen skills and compete for a hefty cash prize and intern with a celebrity chef. It’s called Almost Famous, and though these aspiring chefs may not necessarily be next in line behind Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and the like, the food they are turning out in this intense competition is impressive.
I should know; I was invited to judge the competition’s Mountain Regional contest this year, my second time participating. Eight students and a whole mess of chef instructors, officials and event crew converged on the Culinary Academy in North Las Vegas on February 20. It’s quite the production, complete with a bevy of video cameras and a roomful of invited guests who get to taste dishes inspired by the competitors. As a judge, I was in good company; the rest of the panel was made up of big-name local chefs and restaurateurs including Carla Pellegrino, Rick Moonen, Luciano Pellegrini and Elizabeth Blau.
It was a fun gig. Last year, I was impressed with the presentation of each dish and the poise displayed by the students in a (literally) heated environment. But the food didn’t blow me away. This year was different. Many of the dishes were exceedingly delicious, including a braciole with lemon basil gnocchi and braised fennel created by Joshua Duffy from the Art Institute of Phoenix, and a succulent bison tenderloin with blueberry sauce from Jess Iannotti, a student at the Art Institute right here in Las Vegas. There are 10 Almost Famous regional competitions each year, with the winners moving on to a final battle later this year.
Michele Galloway, a UNLV student, prepared a roasted chicken roulade packed with flavor, complemented by a beurre blanc sauce, stewed fruit compote, a mushroom cracker and creamy polenta speckled with red quinoa. That polenta-quinoa creation stunned the judges. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on the menu at one of their restaurants soon.
But my top pick—and the Vegas winner—was a lamb dish from Chelsea Weinberg from Johnson and Wales University in Denver. She served plump medallions of perfectly rare lamb crusted in flavors of cherry, basil and pistachio on an artfully composed plate with butternut squash tortellini, roasted beets and other root veggies. It was as good a lamb dish as I’ve ever had, and looked and tasted restaurant ready. As evidenced by these talented cooks, the future of food looks bright.