“I hear they’re training kitchen ninjas.”
Nearly thirty students, chef-coat clad and stony-faced, walk out into the lobby in a line. They’ve spent the last three hours in two of Oregon Culinary Institute’s (OCI) three commercial kitchens, showcasing their cooking skills to instructors. Nodding in the air above the aromas of polenta and Brussel sprouts, grapefruit and pork tenderloin is a palpable competitive tension.
Today is a little different from the regular Saturday OCI Kitchen Ninja competitions. Instead of enrolled culinary students, these are high school students; instead of competing for knives (although they’ll receive those too, if they win), they are competing for tuition waivers.
This is the second year that OCI has held a high school version of their Kitchen Ninja competition. Last year, OCI hosted four high school teams and awarded three thousand dollars in tuition waivers. The theme was breakfast. Tera Fukuhara, director of high school and alumni relations at OCI, says that they chose something that they knew wouldn’t be intimidating to high school cooks. “It was our first year and we didn’t know what to expect as far as skill level. The high school competitors successfully killed the competition last year, and we realized that we could challenge them more.”
This time, they asked each team to plan and execute a seasonal Northwest entrée and salad. “What better way to help youth understand seasonal product than challenge them with a seasonal theme?” Fukuhara says.
Learning to cook seasonally and with local, responsibly produced ingredients is a cornerstone of OCI’s curriculum. A whole wall of the dining room is inscribed with the mission statement of the institute, the last part of which reads:
We do not want to take over the world. But we do want to make it a better place – filled with better cooks, better food, and a higher awareness of what it means to cultivate, harvest, render, prepare, cook, plate, present, savor, and give thanks – while taking responsible steps to make sure that those who come after us will have the same or better opportunities.
This year, seven high schools and one after school program sent a total of sixteen teams, filling OCI’s not-enormous facilities with kids in chef coats. Like OCI’s normal Kitchen Ninja events, the competition was broken into three parts: identification, skills, and final dish preparation. One week before, competitors sent their food requisition list to the organizers along with color diagrams of their forthcoming dishes.
Each part of the competition is designed to prepare students for both culinary school and commercial kitchen work. The twenty-five minute identification phase tests students’ knowledge of ingredients and kitchen tools. The second phase tests knife skills and basic cooking ability—competitors raced against the clock to complete tasks like executing a proper chiffonade, dicing potatoes, and cooking eggs. The sixteen teams then had just one hour to prepare and plate three identical salads and three identical entrées (including a starch, a vegetable and a protein)—one to present to the judges and two to present to the lobby of hungry spectators.
Cut fingers and burnt side dishes plagued the teams, but no blood nor burnt food made it onto the plates; all the teams finished on time and presented beautiful, nuanced dishes to the panel of judges.
Luckily, spectators didn’t have to choose. Many seasonal ingredients showed up more than once in the dishes: Brussels sprouts, kale, pears. Commitment to using seasonal ingredients is a challenge for this reason. Chefs must foster constant creativity and innovation to keep the same regionally- and seasonally-available products surprising and compelling. To borrow Fukuhara’s phrasing, yet again, the high school students absolutely killed it. On one plate, Brussels sprouts were seared, crispy and savory, on another, they were lightly steamed, highlighting a very subtle sweetness. One salad featured an entire half pear, crisscrossed with grill marks atop a bed of frisee and fennel. Another featured pear slices with a hint of caramelized crunch on artfully arranged, chopped radicchio. The winning dishes demonstrated both exceptional preparation of and dedication to the use of seasonal ingredients.
The team from Sabin-Schellenberg prepared a seared tenderloin on creamy polenta with ramesco sauce, parsley oil, and charred broccoli, which won them first place: two chef’s knives and $2,000 in combined tuition waivers to OCI.
Seaside High School took third place with a bright kale salad with citrus and bulgur. The duo received paring knives and $1,000 in combined tuition waivers to OCI.
Lincoln High School prepared a pan roasted lamb chops with carrots and sunchoke puree and received second place: two quality knives and $1,600 in combined tuition waivers to OCI.
Fukuhara puts it nicely: They “need to honor food. Someone toiled to put the seed in the ground or nurture that product that is going on our plates. Without the connection of farmer to plate, the most important element of what we do is missed.”
It is not missed today. The collaboration between the staff at OCI and students who attend or even just compete in Kitchen Ninja competitions here has resulted in a beautiful tribute to food and community. This is what it must mean to be a kitchen ninja—not winning, but forging bonds—competitor to competitor, chef to student, pan to dish, and food to eater.
“Eating good food is part of a thriving and responsible food culture.”
Congratulations to Gillian, Amber, Justine, Thien, Ian, Porter, and all of the other competitors. Eating good food is part of a thriving and responsible food culture; we have chefs and cooks to thank for helping us appreciate it.