Three teams of culinary arts students from Southern Maine Community College where thrown into the limelight October 26 at Portland’s Ocean Gateway Pier for the Harvest on the Harbor’s first Cutting Edge student competition. Portland has opened Maine’s food pantry this week highlighting not only its fine ingredients but its abundance of home grown talent. Demonstrating their own fresh Atlantic salmon recipes in front of a full house of foodies, food writers and a panel of professional judges, one team walked off with top honors and a $4,000 prize.
“Cooking is the best way to express my emotions,” Toan Nguyen of the winning team explained. That elicited mummers of agreement from the large audience enjoying his arugula and beet salad, drizzled in a light, fresh sesame oil dressing that created a good counterpoint for the salmon dish. Fellow teammates Megan Manseau and Adam Robichaud deftly rolled fillets of fresh salmon around a stuffing of leeks and chard. The baked salmon was napped with a sauce of dill and cream cheese. Nate Davies was the back of the house team member – one member of each team remained behind the scenes prepping.
The three teams, each consisting of four students, were remarkably poised, displaying both accomplished culinary and communication skills. Considering that they were sharing the stage with dynamic chef Michelle Ragussis, a rising Food Network star, whose wit might intimidate less secure individuals, the teams held their own during the friendly and entertaining repartee. With genuine admiration, chef Ragussis honored these students more than any festival could accomplish. Emcee of the Cutting Edge competition, chef Ragussis, of the Pearl in Rockland, Maine, was the perfect choice. Michelle bantered with the students who surprisingly zinged her numerous times with their own wit and skill.
The second place team, Amanda Rack, Audrey Carlson, Ensign Gerry and Joe Lambert were awarded $2,000 for their poached salmon with raspberry and lime butter sauce. The light berry and citrus flavors would make this a good choice for a summer buffet or brunch. An outstanding wine pairing was Gustave Adolf Schmitt Riesling, 2010 with notes of mellon and just enough sweetness to match the salmon.
The remaining team, Molly Jones, Kevin Ouillette, Marc Hill and Leah Rothgaber, certainly held their own with an imaginative dish of baked salmon topped with black and white sesame seeds in a rich ginger sesame sauce. The deep sesame and ginger flavors permeated the dense salmon. A simple red cabbage Asian slaw provided a crunchy texture for the dish. They made a daring decision to include Marishi dango, an Asian street food dumpling that’s quite dense. It didn’t add flavor, but it demonstrated imagination.
Although not part of the competition, first year students from Washington County Community College wowed the gathering with a first course smoked salmon chowder. The smoked salmon gave this traditional New England dish of haddock, leeks, potatoes, and celery an inspiring depth of flavor. Of course, any dish is only as good as the quality of the ingredients. Family owned True North Salmon Company provided the fresh Atlantic fish.
It is no surprise to anyone following this country’s food scene that culinary education has become an accepted and honored component and the inspiration for most that is praised in American gastronomy. Yet, because of its very nature, it’s an expensive education. Little known to many Americans is the fine culinary education our community collage systems provide. At a fraction of the cost of private institutions, many of our next generation of chefs are currently enrolled in America’s excellent community collages. Based on today’s Cutting Edge competition participants, the nation, Maine, and perhaps the Food Network, will have no problems recruiting the next generation of star chefs.