Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS), which co-sponsored the event with the Summer School Program, provided four teams of five students with cutlery, a frying pan, a pot, and ingredients including peppers, potatoes, garlic, and spinach. Participants also had access to a “pantry” of condiments and other embellishments. Yet contestants could not choose their culinary weapons until the unveiling of a “secret ingredient”—shrimp—immediately before cooking.
Smells of garlic and basil wafted across the east end of Annenberg as the teams—the Cosmic Cooks, The Cookie Monsters, Spice Up Your Life, and The Professionals—tried to throw together something delicious in the space of a mere hour. Their goal: walking away with a winning certificate—and undying culinary glory.
Teams were permitted to bring in outside, non-raw ingredients, a strategy employed to devastating effect by the winning team, The Professionals, who came prepared with fresh fruit, wooden skewers, and recipes to fit any secret ingredient.
“We brought in outside things that fit chicken or shrimp. We knew everybody was preparing for chicken, because it’s cheaper,” said Hudson H. Duan, a member of The Professionals.
The team credited its success to the skill of elder teammate Wamaid Mesley-Borges, who has taken cooking classes.
Mesley-Borges said the team’s presentation pushed their dish past its competitors’.
“We had a combination of horizontal, colors, vertical—we had poppyseed, fruit, pineapple, textures and flavors,” he said. “Cooking is my hobby. I love it.”
Contestants presented each piece de resistance to a panel of judges that included Dean of the Summer School Robert Lue and HUDS Director of Culinary Operations Martin Breslin.
For the judges, the contest came down to the Cookie Monsters’ shrimp tart with tomato basil and roasted vegetables and the Professionals’ mojito-marinade shrimp kebabs, potatoes with garlic and chives, and fresh salad with blueberries, strawberries, and citrus vinaigrette.
Contest judge and Assistant Dean of Quincy House Mike Rainen devoured the Professionals’ preparation with gusto, and an occasional raised eyebrow from Breslin suggested that a consensus was brewing.
“The Professionals’ taste was very complex. They used a lot of different techniques,” Breslin said. He qualified his praise, though, by saying that their mashed potatoes were “a little bit mushy.”
Breslin said he was also impressed by the Cookie Monsters’ “very creative, very nice” use of a crispy rice patty.
A live T.V. feed projected the chefs’ deft handiwork onto a large screen, while emcee and HUDS general manager David Seley enthusiastically provided play-by-play commentary to a packed dinner-time crowd.
The competition lost some spectators as it stretched into its second hour. But some said its long duration was unavoidable.
“They’re not professionals, so they can’t chop any faster without cutting themselves,” said spectator Nancy C. Chia, studying at the Summer School for her masters degree. “We wouldn’t want to see blood, anyway.”