Team Hawaii Brings Home Culinary Gold

Melissa Moniz
Wednesday - September 02, 2009
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Team Hawaii members Keaka Lee, Anna Hirano, Ken Yi, San Shoppell, Tate Nakano-Edwards and Rena Suzuki

The competition was intense, but this tenacious team of culinary students rose to the occasion - deliciously

Let’s raise our glasses and our spoons to our national culinary champions, Kapiolani Community College’s Team Hawaii.

Winners of the 2009 American Culinary Federation Student Team competition held in Orlando, Fla., Team Hawaii made history as it captured the first-ever win for our state.

Bringing home the title are culinary students Anna Hirano, Keaka Lee, Tate Nakano-Edwards, San Shoppell, Rena Suzuki and Ken Yi, along with team coaches Chef Frank Leake and Chef Alan Tsuchiyama.

“We brought Hawaii with us, so that made it even more special,” says Leake,“because it’s not just a national title, we did this for Hawaii. This team made history, and that history stays on the record forever.”

And if being No. 1 isn’t reason enough to celebrate, their wins at the Western regional and nationals were even sweeter as they beat out the favored teams.

Who doesn’t love a good underdog success story?

The story begins eight months ago when this cookin’ team of six set foot in the culinary competition class at KCC.

With hopes of qualifying for the nationals, the team focused on the first course of action, which was winning a spot at the American Culinary Federation Western Regional April 2009 in Seattle.

For the competition, Team Hawaii was tasked with presenting four courses: a fish starter, a salad, a classical meat dish and dessert. And they delivered.

They not only wowed the judges with a win, but earned a spot at the national championships in July.

That gave them about three months to prepare, starting with taking advice from the judges to bring their menu up to another level.

Team Hawaii members Keaka Lee and Rena Suzuki preparing elements of their dishes during the ACF Student Team National Championship competition

“Right after the western regional and going into nationals, we knew that the menu needed to be tweaked,” said Tsuchiyama. “The judges gave us a lot of suggestions, and so we took that and we made some adjustments. There were two courses that we changed completely. The fish, we make it more regional, so we used three fishes from Hawaii. The salad was almost the same, but Rena increased it with about seven more ingredients, and the entree was completely different. The entree was duck five different ways. And Keaka put a lot more time into the dessert and really finessed it. There was more garnishing and technically a lot different.”

Once they had the menu confirmed, preparing 24 portions in the allotted time (three hours and 20 minutes to prep and cook, and 80 minutes to plate) was their next challenge.

This is where their task at hand became larger than their own abilities and resources. They knew practice sessions, which include actually preparing the food, would be essential in perfecting their dishes and their skills. But where would the money to buy the ingredients come from?

“The practice lunches had to happen with or without people there to buy them, so there would be a cost factor attached to that,” says Leake. “We were so incredibly fortunate that the community came forward to attend our lunches and help us to raise funds. Certainly the community believed, and so there was enough money to get us there and home.”

More than $56,000 was raised in support of culinary education in Hawaii and preparing Team Hawaii for competition. The remainder of the money will be used to help send a team to the ACF Western

Team Hawaii members San Shoppell and Rena Suzuki concentrate their efforts on plating the entrée at nationals

Regional Championship and hopefully to the ACF National Championship in 2010 to defend these titles.

“It was just an awesome feeling to know that we had all this support back home when we were in Orlando,” says Tsuchiyama. “That really helped to keep the team focused on what they needed to do because they had a lot of people they didn’t want to let down.”

That support was essential, as they were not only competing against the nation’s best, but also because, as Lee explains, “for certain dishes we didn’t stop changing it until the very last minute.”

Going into the competition, Lee says, “We were confident, but nerves came in. You have a lot of people looking at you. It’s in a big banquet room, not in a kitchen, so it’s very different from being in the kitchen.”

Two kitchen judges and three tasting judges added to the intensity of the competition. Besides the turnout of their dishes, the teams also were critiqued on how they handled themselves.

“The judges and the audience and the other teams were very impressed with Hawaii’s performance in the kitchen, their team-work, how they handled themselves and how well they worked together,” says Tsuchiyama. “At a few points they were actually joking together in the kitchen.”

The result was four dishes that proudly represented Hawaii.

For an appetizer, Team Hawaii served up the Big Island Trio: poached farm-raised Big Island butterfish on a bed of sauteed spinach, fennel and red onion chutney and a passion-orange-guava sauce; kiawe-apple smoked wild Hawaiian opah sprinkled with Kilauea black sea salt, garnished with a pea sprout and accompanied by creamed corn and peas with chili oil; and grilled Kona kampachi served with a cucumber-avocado relish, tomato tapenade and citrus beurre blanc.

The salad was a Nalo Medley that began with a baby Nalo greens and asparagus salad with a lemon-anchovy vinaigrette, accompanied by a blue cheese mousse served with tomato aspic and an herb Parmesan crisp, and finished off with golden and red beets, marinated daikon, candied walnuts, fried goat cheese sphere and Granny Smith apple pesto.

The entree was Pan-Pacific Duckling Melange: marinated sauteed duck breast served with a Hawaiian poha berry sauce and a garnish of fried leeks alongside braised hoisin duck wrapped in cabbage and garnished with cracklings, seared foie gras and ali’i mushroom, potatoes au gratin, sauteed baby zucchini and pattypan squash with a mango salsa.

Dessert was Tastes of The Aloha State, a raspberry and chocolate chiboust terrine with a Kona coffee tuile with lilikoi and berry sauces accompanied by a braised Maui pineapple on a macadamia nut cookie, coconut sorbet on a orange tuile cup, macerated fruits and a dusted raspberry.

“All the dishes were very complicated,” says Tsuchiyama. “Everyone pushed very hard to get their dishes perfected. It was truly a task for the students because it was definitely not an easy menu.”

The announcement of the winners was almost as intense as the competition itself. Leake remembers everyone just sitting there with both confidence and doubt swirling in their heads as it came down to them against the favored team.

“So when they announced that we won, it was a big rush of excitement and an unbelievable feeling,” says Lee. “There were even some tears of joy.”

In second place was Schoolcraft College in Michigan representing the Central Region, third was Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in North Carolina representing the Southeast Region, and ACF Pittsburg Chapter representing the Northeast Region came in fourth.

“Eight months ago, when we first started the competition class, you should have heard them doing projects - they thought it was impossible,” says Tsuchiyama. “But they have proven that it’s not only possible, but they gave even more. They believe in their food, and on that given day they did it. They were able to overcome any obstacle thrown their way. That’s why they are the national champions.”

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