The flavors of barbecue are said to define the palate in the cattle country of Missouri, and Kansas City will be the site of the American Culinary Federation’s 2014 National Convention where—as the winner of Western Region competition—Pasadena’s Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Student Team will vie for top honors against their Central, Northeast, and Southeast counterparts.
Out of 1400 students (minus 100 who are participating in hands-on “externships”), six ambitious, gutsy, tenacious, and creative “chefs in training” are taking the final steps toward national recognition of their culinary skills.
Chef Randy Torres graciously finds us roaming the parking lot that’s behind the school’s main building. He’d instructed us to call him once we arrived, then proceeded to say, “Meet me at the metal door near the elevators.” Of course, the metal door was twice the size of a regular door, glistening silver with a little peekaboo window, but we still turn around every which way and take ourselves to the wrong meeting space. Luckily, Chef Torres is a kind, patient, and forgiving man and welcomes us with a smile and a hearty handshake.
We walked clean hallways, peering into multiple working kitchens with students busily learning their chops. Chef Torres explains that every student must begin with the fundamentals, no matter what their experience level, and often they are chomping at the bit to get more hands on. But it’s all about acquiring the proper foundation, he says, and thus “baby steps,” however frustrating, are imperative.
Students who desire to join the Culinary Student Team must try out. Chef Torres looks primarily at the students’ drive. “It has very little to do with food at first,” he says. Most of Le Cordon Bleu student have other studies (an associates degree is offered in addition to a culinary diploma), full or part-time jobs, other studies, and even families to juggle. Competing in the ACF Student Team competition is extracurricular. The team practices several times a week, coming in early before their regular classes. Last week they were prepping for a full practice on Saturday that would begin at 5 a.m.
Someone wanting to become a member of the team must show Coach that they want it. That they really, really want it.
“Who is putting in the extra effort beforehand? Who is practicing? Who is asking questions?” Chef Torres explains. “I can teach them how to cook, but I can’t teach heart, effort. I’m looking for the person with the biggest heart.”
One member of the team heading to Kansas City for the July 28th competition is Christy (pictured below). She’s 26 years old and her parents were encouraging her to stick with her studies to become a physical therapist. She was finally able to convince them that food is her passion. She’s working toward her associates degree, has no outside job, still lives with her parents, and “is here all the time.” Her dream: to have her own food truck. She wants to serve “healthy Californian” cuisine, though with “some bacon.” Though bacon not her favorite food, but she realizes it is considered a nectar of the gods by many, even by the healthy “many.”
Kristyn is 20 years old and from the Bahamas. Her mother still resides there, but she is currently living with her father and two brothers here in Pasadena. Straight out of high school, she was eager to attend Le Cordon Bleu and is working towards her associates degree. She says that the months of practicing with the team, competing in state and regional competitions (in San Diego and Oakland, respectively), and working under pressure has brought them closer. She admits that the most important lesson and the area of improvement that has made the team better has been improving their communication. It’s a key element to their success.
Nicole is 21 years old and from Jakarta. After graduating from high school, she couldn’t find a culinary school in Indonesia to her liking. An aunt of hers who lives in Pasadena suggested Le Cordon Bleu and she leapt. Nicole has a Dutch grandmother who liked to cook and cooked every day, and Nicole loves to “watch how she does stuff.” Also, she’d attended an all-girls school and she was required to take half a year of sewing and half a year of cooking instruction. We told her that our equivalent experience was in middle school and was called “Home Economics.” (We still shudder to think how long it took to sew that midi-length, green, white and yellow daisy print with white trim wrap-a-around skirt that only had two snaps.)
After completing her school’s cooking class, Nicole realized, “I have a talent in cooking.” She thought initially that after graduation, she would like to work in a high end restaurant. Now she is realizing that working in full-time in a kitchen would be very tiring and she really enjoys the presentation part of cooking, so she is considering getting into food styling.
Angelo is 36 years old and from the Philippines, having arrived two years ago. He favors Italian cuisine; “It’s simple, but the taste is complex.” He’s been on the student team since day one and admits that communication has been the hardest point, especially since when he cooks, he doesn’t tend to talk.
Kevin is the team alternate who’s main job is to support the team in any way necessary. He’s from San Jose and prior to culinary school, he had been in the toy hobby industry. He was planning on attending a school in San Francisco, but a buddy was moving to Pasadena and suggest the local Le Cordon Bleu. One tour and he was hooked. After having lived in the Bay area his whole life, Kevin wanted a change and a challenge. After he receives his associates degree, he’d like to learn from the best, pay his dues, be a line chef, and ultimately work his way to becoming a sous chef. “I’d like that,” he said.
Chef Torres has been a student, a member of a student team, a team manager, a coach, as well as an official judge, so he feels very comfortable with how to prep his team, and he works them hard, he admits. “Sometimes the competition is easier than the practice.”
To compete in the national competition, Le Cordon Bleu pays for the cost of goods, which adds up to a lot of food. But the student team must raise funds for their costs of travel, lodging, and general expenses—about $18,000 worth.
*As of Monday, June 23rd, this event has been cancelled, though donations to the team are still being accepted: A fundraiser will be held Friday, June 27th, at 5:30 p.m. at Le Cordon Bleu’s Technique Restaurant. 525 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena 91101. Tickets are $50 per person (cash at the door) with reservations suggested. 626.229.1377. The evening is described as a cocktail-type party with multiple food stations,—which diners may revisit and enjoy repeatedly—and wine tasting.
Le Cordon Bleu Student Team (below): Kristyn, Nicole, Angelo, Kevin, and Christy.