Brookdale Culinary Education Center (CEC) students and alumni joined local high school students, Monmouth County dignitaries and community members, college officials and a panel of acclaimed judges in Asbury Park on Oct. 17 for the first ever Grown in Monmouth Culinary Competition.
The event, inspired by the Food Network Program “Chopped,” pitted three teams of CEC students, alumni and Monmouth County Vocation School District (MCVSD) students against one another in a “Grown in Monmouth” themed competition.
Just before the competition began, competitors were provided with a mystery basket of produce, meat, seafood, wine, beer and condiments, all of which were grown, raised, bottled and brewed in Monmouth County. Each team was required to use all of the ingredients in some way, while preparing a three-course meal for a panel of expert judges.
The judges were: Andrew Araneo, CEC alumni and acclaimed owner of Drew’s Bayshore Bistro in Keyport, who defeated celebrity chef Bobby Flay in a Jersey Shore “throwdown” in 2013; Emily Chapman, CEC alumni, executive sous chef at Pasquale Jones in New York City and winner of Food Network’s “Chopped: Impossible” tournament in 2015; and Erik Witherspool, executive chef for gourmet dining services at Monmouth University and culinary operations manager for Monmouth Race Track.
As the competitors began planning and preparing their dishes in the CEC kitchen, invited guests and dignitaries gathered in the dining room to watch the action on a large TV screen and dine on gourmet hor d’oeuvres prepared by CEC students.
The competition kicked off will a welcome from Monmouth County Freeholders Thomas Arnone, Lillian Burry and Serena DiMaso, who joined CEC co-director and principal Michael Sirianni, Brookdale culinary arts associate professor Michelle Zuppe, Brookdale president Dr. Maureen Murphy and a host of other officials who were on hand to celebrate both the students and the county’s new Grown in Monmouth initiative.
“I believe this is a tremendous event that highlights the great work of our current students, the achievements of our past students and the amazing local ingredients that can be found right here in Monmouth County,” said Sirianni. “It’s sort of a win-win for everyone. It’s great exposure for the Grown in Monmouth program, which supports local businesses and growers, and it’s great exposure for our school and our students.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Zuppe, who said the competition also served as a valuable learning experience for the student competitors.
“Farm-to-table is a big part of what we teach,” she said. “We encourage our students to use and appreciate locally grown food, and the baskets they are using today are just filled with great local produce and ingredients… It’s also a valuable opportunity for our students and high school students to work on a team with accomplished alumni, who are all working as professional chefs here in Monmouth County.”
The teams had one hour to prepare an appetizer, entree and dessert, which were then reviewed and graded by the judges. While two of the three judges were CEC alumni, they pulled no punches when it came to serving up criticism.
“I know what they are capable of,” said Araneo, who was a member of the CEC’s first ever graduating class in 2000. “I’ve brought in, I don’t know how many interns from the CEC to work at my restaurant, and I always try to hire graduates when I can. It’s a great school… The students and alumni cooking here tonight worked hard. Some dishes were better than others, but I was impressed with what they did in such a short time.”
Top honors in the competition went to Team C, which featured CEC alumni and current Langosta Lounge chef Sharon Kircher; CEC student Sean Yim and MCVSD student Chelsea Mendes, of Eatontown.
“It feels good,” said Yim, a second-year culinary student from Howell. “There were some stressful moments in there, for sure. I’ve never worked with garlic skate before, but Chef Sharon had. I felt like I could have done better – I honestly didn’t think we were going to win – but it was a good learning experience. In a pressure situation like that, things aren’t always going to go perfectly. You have to adapt and work together and keep going.”
Second place went to CEC alumni Oleg Scorpan, chef of Yvonne’s in Neptune; CEC student Tyler Berman of Manalapan; and MCVDS student David Ardizzone of Ocean Township. Third place went to alumni Wendy Escobedo, chef of Kula Cafe in Asbury Park; CEC student Erin Cotterell and MCVSD student Giana Lupo of Middletown.
“It was tough, but I think it was a good test of our skills,” said Cotterell, a second-year student from Lincroft. “You really learn the importance of the little things, like your knife cuts and accuracy. It was little intimidating being on a team with a professional chef, but he worked really well with us. I definitely grew as a chef tonight.”
The Culinary Education Center, located in Asbury Park, is a partnership between Brookdale Community College and the Monmouth County Vocational School District. For more information click here.
To learn more about the Grown in Monmouth Program, click here.
Check out more photos of the Grown in Monmouth Culinary Competition here.