Second Round of Papi Tino's Culinary School Competition

Week Two: Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts

Charles Ukatu's Cerdo Asado con Couscous
Charles Ukatu's Cerdo Asado con Couscous
photo by Gracie Salem

The second competitor in the month-long contest is decided: a battle of pork unfolded on Wednesday night at the East side eatery.

There are two kinds of cooks: those who attended culinary school and those who did not. Those who did not learned what they know on the job (which they probably sweet talked their way into). By being quiet and watching, by making a lot of mistakes, and by following a lot of gut instinct. My husband is one of those kind of cooks.

Culinary school graduates generally come into a restaurant job armed with an arsenal of knowledge, food history, definitions, and recipes. A pretty sizable leg up. Besides a degree, one other thing most culinary school graduates have that cooks like my husband don’t: a whole bunch of debt.

This week at Papi Tino’s, students from Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts cooked in the month-long competition that will result in a contract for a job in the East side kitchen. Visiting Escoffier’s website, I used the handy tuition calculator to see just how expensive a culinary education could be. And any way I punched the numbers, the 40-week program cost about $45,000, which is no small number. (To be clear, tuition and fees only come to $22,000. Other expenses include books and supplies, room and board, and other personal expenses like transportation. It's all broken down for you by the tuition calculator. Escoffier says it typically takes a student 15 months to complete a degree.) Undoubtedly, it will be worked off in long, sweaty, stressful hours behind the line.

But the trade off, I suspect for most, is the chance to do for a living what one loves. The chance to be creative and to impress. Simply put, the chance to make people happy with what you make. And Wednesday night, week two of the competition: the students from Escoffier presented plates that did just that.

Dish One: Cerdo Asado con Couscous by Charles Ukatu. Thick slices of pork tenderloin were set with bright purple couscous (given its color by adding sauteed and pureed beets cooked with garlic and onion and given flavor by cooking it with veal stock). The couscous was toothsome, vibrant, and delicious. A very spicy chile-and-tomato relish accompanied the pork, as well as deep-fried and well-salted kale. Lots of colors, flavors and techniques distracted from the pork, which, while flavorful, was a little overcooked.

Dish Two: Braised Pork Belly by Ryan Anderson. Thick, fatty cubes of pork belly sat alongside a very crispy, very sweet corn fritter with a creme fraiche-sour cream sauce and a gastrique infused with mescal The pork belly, while perfectly tender, lacked enough salt to encourage a truly crisp shell. I cleaned my plate, noting that had I ordered and paid for the dish in a restaurant, I would be very happy with it indeed.

Both dishes were paired with fiery sips of Wahaka Mezcal, a promoter of the event, and both boldly displayed the talent and effort that clearly went into them.

Ultimately, Ukatu’s pork and couscous won the judges over, and he will return on September 26th to cook in the finals. He enthusiastically fielded questions from the judges, which this evening included Chef Jaime Gutierrez from III Forks, Kelly Stocker from Yelp, Chef Brad Hartley from Whole Foods, Dr. Arturo Espinoza, and myself.

In the end, Ukatu gave an impromptu speech, in which he thanked fellow student chefs who helped that night and Papi Tino’s for the opportunity. It was nothing short of adorable and momentarily interrupted when a guest shouted out: “Thank you, Chef!” To which Ukatu shouted back, “I’m not a chef yet!” His humility and excitement were palpable and appreciated.

I’m thrilled to see his efforts in the final round. The third competitor will be named next week when two students from Le Cordon Bleu go up against each other. Check back here for those results next week.

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