Having arrived for what they believed to be a run-of-the-mill evening class, the students' kitchen mettle was instead put to the ultimate test with an Iron Chef Competition.
According to Sandy Furano, customized business training coordinator at the Mahoning County Career and Technical Center, the seven students currently enrolled in the Culinary and Restaurant Management Program were informed that attendance on Tuesday, Sept. 18 was mandatory in light of the impending opening of the facility's new eatery, The Bistro.
Placed into two groups of three students and one additional student who worked independently in collaboration with the others, the apprentices were provided three main ingredients: pork loin, beets, and purple potatoes, with the allowance of additions.
Photos by Kathleen Palumbo, Town Crier correspondent
The perfect accompaniment to her team’s first grill-seared, then baked pork chops served with an apple-beet spice sauce, and creamy potato soup with bacon crumbles, Courtney Fusillo prepared seasoned fall vegetables in keeping with the theme.
According to team one member Cierra Meenachan, once they were informed of the competition, each team brainstormed as to what they would do with the ingredients provided and which member would focus on each item.
Given exactly 90 minutes to prepare their meals, the teams would then serve the judges who scored not only the aesthetic appeal and taste of the meal, but who also viewed their time in the kitchen, querying them as they worked.
Just as the students had arrived for class unsuspecting of the contest, they were equally unaware they were being judged on their cooperation, communication, and teamwork skills as they worked.
Comprised of Meenachan, Robert Dikun, and Stephanie Needham, team one prepared their pork loin herb-rubbed and baked with a balsamic reduction drizzle accompanied by vegetable stuffed eggplant, and from the purple potatoes, had prepared potato gnocchi with a creamy cheese sauce.
Team two, which included Jonathan Baust, Courtney Fusillo, and Eugene Walls, whipped up pork chops they first grill-seared, then baked served with an apple-beet spice sauce, dished up alongside seasoned vegetables and a creamy purple potato soup with bacon crumbles.
As the pastry chef for the evening, Jaclyn Magurira put to good use the beets, creating two separate desserts, one to accompany each of the teams.
Having admittedly begun the cook-off planning to use the purple spuds for a fluffy Chantilly potato side dish, Baust was forced to think on his feet when the consistency of the potatoes was off, and instead created what became a judge pleaser, winning over both taste buds and points.
Judges Dr. Roan Craig, superintendent of MCCTC; Chef Cliff James of Fifth Season restaurant; attorney Kathi McNabb Welsh, an MCCTC board member; Michael Lazazzera, owner of Sidaris Italian Foods; and Michael Perrell, chef at the Youngstown Club, tallied their scores, and although more than one judge found themselves with a tie, team two was named the winner.
Wednesday, Sept. 20 served as preview night for The Bistro, for which Furano said various individuals of all ages were selected to be in attendance.
Operating under the direction of chefs Stephen Grant and Sean Kushma, The Bistro is currently open Monday and Wednesday evenings from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. through Oct. 31.
In addition to picturesque sunset views, visitors can delight in taste sensations such as mushroom risotto, tri-color penne with garlic and oil, and toffee caramel flan. Menu items will change every two weeks, and the facility also offers a children's menu featuring items of equal appeal to younger appetites.
According to Craig, the intense program that the seven are currently pioneering can accommodate 20 students, with the number of hours incorporated into it allowing for eligibility for Pell grants and student loans. The Adult Ed students will earn credit hours gaining experience at The Bistro, located in the new wing of the facility.
Speaking on the students who cover a wide age range and come from all walks of life and levels of experience, "School is the only time when you're deliberately grouped by age it's an artificial grouping," said Craig, adding "It's nice when they appreciate each other for their differences."
Plans vary from the specific, such as Walls, who shared that he hopes to find work in a steakhouse, to the more broad, such as Baust, who looks forward to joining a top-notch eatery where he can gain experience, and Fusillo, who shared that her culinary passion will be satisfied as long as she's in the kitchen, where each and every one of the seven have proven they plan to stay, having already demonstrated that they can stand the heat.