SARATOGA SPRINGS — On Thursday afternoon, 11 culinary teams from northeastern colleges and universities were given a mystery basket of ingredients, containing food items like green jackfruit, kamut, blood oranges, duck and four whole flounder.
Tasked with planning their team’s menu for Friday’s American Culinary Federation Market Basket Competition at Skidmore College, the chefs had a two-hour window to plan how they would use all their mystery items in a menu for a three-course meal.
By 6 a.m. Friday, the first teams up for judging were already chopping, dicing and sauteeing in their allotted space in the Murray-Aikens Dining Hall.
The Market Basket Competition, based on the format of the TV show “Chopped,” happens twice a year, summer and winter, as part of the American Culinary Federation’s Conference.
Skidmore has been hosting the January conference and competition for the past seven years.
“We would compete at University of Massachusetts every year in June,” said Mark Miller, director of Skidmore’s dining services, on Friday morning at the event. “And one year I said, ‘It’s a shame this is only once a year.’ ”
So Miller proposed that Skidmore host a winter conference.
“I approached the CFO and asked, ‘What about hosting one in January?’ ” he said, adding that they needed to buy a few things first, like 44 butane burners.
“We only needed a little cash. And hosting gets a little easier each year.”
This year’s contestants represent four states and 11 institutions: Cornell University, the University at Albany, Ithaca College, SUNY Geneseo, SUNY Cobleskill, SUNY Cortland, Williams College, the University of Buffalo, University of Connecticut, University of Rochester and Skidmore College.
“The annual competition allows our staff an opportunity to enhance their knowledge while also expanding their practical culinary skills,” Miller said. “It’s important that our staff are actively learning and testing new recipes that can eventually be incorporated into Skidmore’s menus.”
So here’s how the competition happens:
Each team of four has two hours to prepare a three-course meal, using all the mystery ingredients, and gets 15 minutes for plating the menu items. Team starting times are staggered so each new team can present its creations to the three tasting judges, said James Rhoads, one of the judges.
“This year, we have three Golden Toque (a chef’s hat is a toque) chefs as judges,” said Rhoads, explaining that this is the highest distinction that only 100 about chefs have attained. “The teams are graded with an international scoring system. We could actually have 11 gold medals, because they are not competing against each other but for points.”
There are a total of six judges — three for tasting, two for floor judging and one for timing. The floor judges score the teams on the way they work together, their use of equipment and how they used the ingredients.
The tasting judges taste all the menu items from each of the 11 teams. But because they only taste a small bite from each presented food, it is not too much, said Fritz Sonnenschmidt, a certified master chef and the head judge.
They will judge the teams on originality, taste and presentation, and they may award or deduct additional points for timing, teamwork, utilization of food, skills, sanitation and overall preparation.
When tasting a flounder appetizer, Sonnenschmidt said at first they taste just the flounder, then taste it again with the side dishes.
“With this one, the texture is not right,” he explained about one of the dishes. “The fish is too soft and this (a side item) is too crunchy and so you have to swallow one before the other and you lose the combined taste.”
Following the three-course meal, the teams also prepared a buffet course, using only four butane burners. No ovens, deep fat fryers, grills or refrigeration were allowed.
The winning teams were awarded medals at the end of the day Friday. The Skidmore team — Joe Greco, Paul Karlson, Bryan Bidwell and Donovan Preston — won a gold medal with the highest total points. Other medals included, Cornell, gold, and SUNY Albany, silver.
The Skidmore dining staff has won gold medals each of the past four years.
“This is one of the few almost perfectly run competitions,” said Rhoads.