Previewing New Kitchen Talent at the UT Culinary Program’s Student Challenges

In Home Palate by Dennis PerkinsLeave a Comment

If you’ve had any restaurant experience, then you’ll know that hosting 40 to 60 people for dinner at roughly the same time is a challenge. In restaurant argot, that puts a kitchen instantly “in the weeds.” And yet that’s just what happens when students in the University of Tennessee Culinary Program face their catered function challenge.

Friday night at the UT Conference Center, I attended the most recent of these culinary trials by fire, mastered by student chef Brandon Hill. It offered an inside look at one aspect of our rapidly evolving food scene that’s becoming ever more critical: education. Will Knoxville’s next generation of chefs be able to hack it?

Unlike a standard restaurant experience, the menu at these challenges are prix fixe, with each diner selecting from two choices for each of the three courses. Still, assembling simultaneous service for even a single table of eight presents certain challenges for anyone new to the demands of a commercial kitchen. But in these events, there’s no telling how many guests will actually turn up nor when they will sit down—and there’s no host adding buffer time to the seating: guests walk in, pick a seat, and wait to eat.

Friday night’s theme was “The Latin Feast” and diners chose between pupusa and ceviche for the starter. The main course featured a choice between pork belly tacos with charro beans or a beer-mopped strip steak served with Mexican street corn. Finally, guests picked either dulche de leche cheesecake or pineapple rum empanadas for dessert.

Hill, of course, wasn’t alone back there in the kitchen. He led a team of his peers assigned to various stations based on his assessment of their strengths. They’ve all been in this 12-week program together for seven weeks—now they had to work together to test some of what they’ve learned. Each of them will eventually take a turn leading their own catered function like Hill’s.

UT’s Culinary Program—the only program in Tennessee certified by the American Culinary Federation—is an $8,500 full-time, 400-hour course of study. Students learn everything from knife skills to the mathematics of ordering food for a function with varied menu choices. The course is helmed by chef Greg Eisele who leads a team of area professionals, including local luminary chef David Hume Pinckney of Cherokee Country Club, who teach a broad range of courses to give students experience at each station of the professional kitchen.

The catered event is education in the hot zone. Students study in kitchens, they work there, but when the dining room’s full, the space takes on a different charge. Hill says that choosing to serve a steak present an extra level of challenge.

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“That was something that caught me off guard at first—the volume of different temp items. If you have grilled chicken, it’s gonna be grilled chicken at all times. But a steak is a hard task to handle,” he says. “That was one of the lessons that we learned really quick tonight. When the ticket runners come that’s when it becomes real confusing and you really have to hone down and use the knowledge that you’ve gained to make sure that you’re sending out a medium or medium rare steak by look, by feel, by temperature.”

The number of specific orders coming in for fulfillment is a new experience, but, according to Hill, the team gets training while working in volume.

“The most important thing we’ve learned is called mis-en-place—everything in its place—and they drive that into us six hours a day, every day. If you have a true mis-en-place you can do anything you want. If we have all of our prep done, all our food ordered it’s all just a puzzle from there, it’s all a matter of making sure that your tickets are ready to go. We were all well prepared.”

Hill’s classmate, Rob Petrone, was responsible for the pupusa, a cheese-stuffed corn tortilla. He says he felt primed after seven weeks of classes in technique and basic skills, but that the competition day helps in terms of handling stress. “But it’s not like what you see on TV—the instructors are really looking at your mis-en-place and skills and creativity, too,” Petrone says. “It’s not like we’re in kitchen stadium.”

It was in fact a pleasant dining experience—for the record, my steak was beautifully done. The meal itself was a success with bold flavors, balanced seasoning, and attention to textural variation. There was certainly evidence of the team’s training in the menu itself with a thoughtful mix of levels of service difficulty—a balance of items that required immediate cooking with things that could either be finished easily or quickly plated. 

Although the entire meal was nice, there was one thrilling moment for those of us who chose cheesecake for our last course. It was a lovely presentation that featured an exceptional salted pecan crust, but what made it so very nice was a light garnish of Mexican oregano—its light citrusy tinge gave the sweetness a lift, and the meal a very nice finale.

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Dennis Perkins' Home Palate is a tasty exploration of local options for eating out and eating well by way of restaurant reviews, features on fun or unusual foodstuffs, and interviews with local food purveyors and tastemakers. It’s a candid and personal look at what’s right (and sometimes what’s wrong) with eating 
in Knoxville and its environs. He is also the artistic 
director of the Knoxville Children’s Theatre, has directed and performed at the Actor’s Co-op and Black Box Theatre, and is a foodie par excellence.

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