At a special event for the recent Los Angeles Food & Wine festival, four ambitious young chefs took over Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bistro to kick off the second annual 2015 Young Chef Competition—a series of four coast-to-coast, head-to-head cook-offs that determine the country’s best up-and-coming culinary talent. Produced by Ment’or BKB (the esteemed culinary foundation that gives grants, training and recognition to the next generation of professionals), there will be four regional events over the next two months that will grant a total of $60,000 to eight first and second place winners—plus coveted opportunities to work in the restaurant of their choice (anywhere in the world).
The Beverly Hills competition was judged by a seven-member panel comprised of all-star chefs who serve as members of the Ment’or Culinary Council: William Bradley (Addison), Josiah Citrin (Melisse), Traci des Jardins (Jardinière), Timothy Hollingsworth (Otium/Barrel & Ashes), Walter Manzke (République), Alan Wong (Alan Wong's Honolulu) and Bouchon’s Chef de Cuisine, David Hands. They closely observed the competitors in the kitchen before silently sampling and evaluating each presentation of Striped Sea Bass in front of 160 VIP onlookers—comprised of chefs, food critics, benefactors and executive sponsors from All-Clad, Nespresso, Nordaq, Steelite International, and Spire Collection wines.
Competitors were scored on excellence in overall taste, presentation and kitchen organization, but what each judge really looked for is somewhat secretive and highly individual. “First, I touch the plate to make sure the food is served hot,” Chef/Judge Hollingsworth explained when I asked his criteria. “Then I look at the composition of the plate, because that’s important. I taste each individual component to see how well each is executed, then I taste all the ingredients together as the chef intends it to be eaten. By the end of it I’m thinking about execution, flavor profile, and the history of where that person has worked and how that relates to the dish.”
For San Francisco Chef/Judge Des Jardins, it’s also about balance: “They have to bring to the plate great technique and great variation of techniques, but the harmony of flavors is always the key to a great dish.”
“At the end of the day the best part of this is if it’s delicious,” added Chef/Judge Citrin, a Santa Monica restauranteur. “That’s the most important thing: if after the first bite I want to have a second.”
The judges decided that this year’s first big winner was Chef Skylar Stover, a friendly, baby-faced 20-something go-getter who was assisted by Harrison Turone, the Chef de Partie at Ad Lib in Napa, California. His star dish was pave of Striped Bass with charred eggplant mousse, squash blossoms, artichoke boudin, brandade croustillante, garden carrots, Niçoise olive and spinach purée with brown butter emulsion.
Stover not only won $10,000, but he also gained the admiration of his three young competitors and their able right hands: Executive Chef David Kneller and his assistant Chris Ferrell, both from The Bartlett Pear Inn of Easton, Maryland); Sous Chef William Lansing of The Strand House in Manhattan Beach, California and his assistant Rebecca Foley of Love & Salt; and Lead Line Cook Michelle Tribble and her assistant Andrea Saldana, both of Five Sixty by Wolfgang Puck in Dallas, Texas.
Stover, it should be mentioned, had an advantage or two. Not only did he train at Keller’s famed French Laundry, but he also played an instrumental role within Team USA last March at The Bocuse d’Or (AKA the Olympics of the culinary world) in Lyon, France, helping the group win the Silver Bocuse. This was no small potatoes, because it’s the first time in history that an American team has won a spot on the podium.
Unlike his competitors that night, Chef Stover had already been judged glowingly by the finest chefs in the world, so it’s no wonder that he was cool as a cucumber while making his presentation to the YCC panel. “Nervous? No, I’m really not nervous,” Stover told me privately while he watched the stone-faced judges taste-test his artfully-plated fish dish. “Bocuse d’Or though, is nerve-rattling. It’s a competition for some 24 countries and each one really competes to do their best by throwing you off your game. The UK brings a marching band. Sweden brings bells!”
Thankfully there are no such shenanigans at The Young Chef Competition events, just a civilized kitchen frenzy, an open bar and convivial spirit all around. “Competing in front of a highly esteemed panel of judges is never easy,” said Ment’or BKB Chairman Daniel Boulud. “We hope this helps inspire culinary excellence and reward at least a few of the countless young cooks who toil behind the scenes, challenging themselves to be better with each day.”
The final three events of the 2015 Young Chef Competition will be held in at Boka in Chicago on September 17, at Lincoln in New York City on September 26, and at Pass & Provisions in Houston on October 8.