Taste can overcome timing.
That’s the lesson Team 3 learned during Thursday’s Iron Chef-style cooking competition at Central Texas College.
After Chef-instructor Keith Pascar announced the second-place team in Battle Ginger, Brandon McLean, Jared Foster, Donovan Palmer and Anibal Perez had resigned themselves to a last-place finish. Knowing their appetizer, entree and dessert had all arrived late to the judges’ table, they figured the gold medal belonged to Team 1. So when Pascar declared Team 3 the winners, they were the most surprised of all. Exclaiming “No way!” and “I can’t believe it!,” McLean, Foster, Palmer and Perez eventually made their way up to receive their medals.
It was an improbable victory in a competition often decided by a few points, but a sweet one, especially for McLean, who broke his “second-place curse” in the semester-ending competition.
Each spring, student chefs team up to prepare three dishes — an appetizer, entree with sides and a dessert — featuring the secret ingredient revealed right before the clock starts, giving teams 30 minutes to plate a dish in each round. Each plate is judged on presentation, flavor, originality and how well the secret ingredient is incorporated. Teams lose points for tardiness or sanitation issues in the kitchen.
This year’s battle featured ginger, which can easily be incorporated into sweet or savory dishes. While we were waiting for the first plates, fellow judges Matt Cranfill and Tandra Honey and I were talking about what we hoped to eat. Deciding ginger tea or ginger ice cream would be welcome, we assumed we’d end up with a lot of dishes with a distinct Asian influence, since ginger originated in Southeast Asia and is featured prominently in Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese cooking.
The day’s best flavors came from Team 3, beginning with an appetizer of grilled shrimp and bell and jalapeno peppers, marinated with ginger and other spices. That was followed by an amazing entree — grilled chicken marinated in sake with chilis, cilantro, mint and ginger was paired with sweet mashed potatoes, which were seasoned with garlic, shallots, parsley, ginger and chicken stock, and green beans and carrots, steamed with ginger, chili flakes and white rum. The flavors blended perfectly on the plate, offering sweet heat. Dessert, which I later learned was a last-minute conception after their first idea faltered as the clock began to run out, was light and refreshing. Pairing a slice of fresh grapefruit with diced mango and a ginger mousse, scored enough points to secure the spring semester championship.
While Team 3 served a sensational meal, the other teams weren’t far behind. All the food was creative and delicious.
Team 4 — James Philibert, Martha Cruz, Quincy Green and Michelle Roemer — finished strongly in second place, preparing one of my favorite dishes of the day — a shrimp stir fry with steamed white rice, blended perfectly with a ginger-infused sauce.
Team 2 — Christina Paddock-Chappell, Shilah Heavin, Nathan Templon and Patricia Wright — took third. They served my favorite dessert, a crepe filled with a strawberry, pineapple and ginger compote and topped with a ginger chocolate sauce and whipped cream. It was light and refreshing.
And while Travis Hrbacek, Chris Afferback, Jennie Furlow and Susan Keown, were denied medals this year, they served some amazing food, including what myself and the other judges deemed the most original dish — ginger-butter toast. It was paired with their entree of grilled beef, sauteed peppers, carrots and green beans served in a pork broth infused with ginger.
It was another splendid battle and a fantastic meal.
After the competition ended, McLean told me his team sacrificed being on time to the judges’ table to ensure each dish was executed properly. The gamble paid off in a golden moment for the three-year Iron Chef competitor and his teammates as taste overcame timing.