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JCCC culinary team cooks up success abroad

Special to The Star

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It wasn’t exactly the auspicious start the Johnson County Community College culinary team envisioned when it recently competed in the International Young Chefs Challenge in Seoul, South Korea.

A suitcase containing intricate molded chocolate pieces destined for dessert plates survived the 14-hour Kansas City-to-Korea flight without incident in November.

But as the suitcase rested on a hotel room’s heated floor prior to the competition, the chocolate melted into an unrecognizable and unusable mess.

So go the challenges of competition for the globetrotting JCCC culinary team.

This year alone, student teams and their coaches have cooked up winning concoctions while representing the United States in competitions in New Zealand, Costa Rica and South Korea.

The team’s latest medal sweep — gold in cold food, silver in hot food, bronze in the overall cold food category and fourth place overall — came at the prestigious South Korean event, which drew more than 1,000 participants younger than 25 from 20 countries.

JCCC’s team members were Sally Wilson, Stephan Horsch, Raquel Kramer, Katie O’Connor, Matt Phillips and Kathryn Ratzlaff.

Chef Eddie Adel, JCCC assistant professor of hospitality management, and Todd Walline, adjunct assistant professor of hospitality management, served as their coaches.

JCCC culinary teams are comprised of students in the college’s culinary apprenticeship program, which is the country’s largest and is also accredited by the American Culinary Federation.

Being a member of the culinary team is an extracurricular activity. In addition to full class loads, students in the culinary apprenticeship program work 40 hours a week in restaurant, hotel and country club kitchens across the city.

Mishaps such as the Seoul chocolate episode are part of the rigors of competition, said Chef Felix Sturmer, a professor of hospitality management who has attended more than 50 competitions throughout the world with students during his 12 years at JCCC.

“We plan and organize down to the most minute details,” he said. “And we must be able to quickly recover from anything that might happen.”

For example, after the team landed in New Zealand earlier this year, customs agents confiscated important ingredients from team suitcases.

“We thought we knew what we could take into the country,” Sturmer said, “but even after all these years of packing for competitions, we learned a very valuable lesson.”

Several factors ratcheted up the heat in Korea, he said.

“First, the team had been together a relatively short time, and Kathryn joined just 30 days prior to leaving for Seoul,” he said. “We were invited last March, as we were practicing for two other international competitions. The requirements and the amount of food we had to produce in Korea were unusual. Usually we cook for four to eight judges and this time we cooked for five judges and 60 paying guests.”

Adel, who graduated from JCCC’s culinary program, learned early in his career that panicking when the unexpected occurs isn’t an option, whether cooking for judges in a foreign kitchen or preparing food at the Westin Crown Center.

“Felix and I, along with the other faculty, teach students how to be proficient and organized,” Adel said. “When something goes wrong, you keep moving forward. You don’t throw your hands up in the air. In competition, sometimes sheer endurance helps you win.”

Sturmer and Adel developed menus for the International Young Chefs Competition, including complex dishes such as mousseline-capped salmon with seaweed-citrus crust and pork tenderloin with sweet chili and spice rub and a shiitake and shallot reduction sauce with a hint of soy sauce and mirin.

“To me, the best part of getting ready for a competition is seeing the dishes come together and watching the kids grow as they execute them,” Adel said.

Students sometimes practice 18 hours a week, conducting culinary dress rehearsals, to prepare for a competition. At competition, the dishes created in various categories receive points for taste, plate design and presentation and innovation and composition.

Lindy Robinson, dean of the college’s business division, said she realized during her stints years ago as JCCC culinary team manager the value of students going to regional, national and international events.

“Initially, I agreed to support an international trip every other year, but we now compete every year,” she said. “A medal on a student’s resume is a priceless asset. It demonstrates their strong commitment to the industry in general and indicates their creativity. ”

Robinson launched the Friends with Taste club when the $13 million, state-of-the-art Hospitality and Culinary Academy opened in August on the JCCC campus. The club supports scholarships, the work in JCCC’s culinary classrooms and culinary team competitions, which can cost between $30,000 and $50,000 annually.

JCCC’s culinary program has developed a recipe for success over the decades, Robinson said.

“Students are known personally by at least one instructor and are mentored, counseled and challenged to do their best academically and in the industry as a career pathway,” she said. “This is just the beginning of their continual growth as a professional, and competitions are part of the process.”

Wilson, part of culinary team that impressed judges in Korea, is in her third year of JCCC’s culinary apprenticeship program.

“My first year on the culinary team I washed dishes and ran errands,” said the Colby, Kan., native. “The second year, everyone came back to the team and there wasn’t a spot for me, so I started doing individual competitions, winning a silver in Orlando, a gold at the John Joyce Competition in Kansas City and winning the ACF Student Chef of the Year in Little Rock.”

She also was on the Costa Rica team that earned gold medals earlier this year and was the only experienced competitor on the Korean team.

“We had very long days and all sorts of potholes in Korea, like no power on one side of our kitchen and not having a meat grinder for the massive amount of sausage I made,” Wilson said. “I am proud of our team; everyone hung in there.”

What about that river of chocolate in the suitcase in the Korean hotel room? Unable to replace it, the team simply did without it.

“It was pretty devastating for everyone, and especially our coaches,” said Wilson. “But you have to be flexible.”

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