On Friday I was fortunate enough to be chosen by the Community Food Bank of New Jersey to be guest judge at their Food Service Training Academy’s International Cook-Off. I guess it’s one of the perks of being a food blogger for a major daily newspaper.
The Community Food Bank of New Jersey distributes food and grocery products to charities serving over 900,000 people in need throughout New Jersey. As an extension of their charitable service, the Food Bank runs a food service training academy that trains men and women for careers in the food service industry. This fourteen week job skills program ends with a final exam that features a competition of sorts with the students being graded on food from a specific region of the country or world.
A few weeks before the competition, the students work in teams and randomly choose a region that they will develop a menu from, cooking the different foods of that region.
The competition takes place over four days, and on Friday I was there to judge the foods prepared from Slovakia, England, Chile and Spain. I have to say, that the students really stepped up to the task and prepared everything from appetizers to main entrees and dessert, some even preparing special drinks from the region.
The kitchens at the academy are nothing less than magnificent. I could have been in the kitchens of some major hotel or cruise line. Everything is there to help them learn the basics of food preparation and then some. And watching them prepare for their meals I saw a passion in the way they each had a job to do and worked as a team to get the job done. And quite nicely I might add.
Like myself, these students had a passion for what they did. But unlike myself they were working in a high pressure environment to prepare the meals in large volume and serve the staffers of the Food Bank for this final exam competition.
The toughest part of my judging was tasting everything the students prepared. The tasting wasn’t the hard part, there was very little there that I didn’t like, but it was tough just tasting and not devouring everything on my plate to leave room for the next table. I guess it’s the art of food tasting that I have yet to master.
Heading up the academy is Executive Chef Paul Kapner, who is the director of the Food Service Training Academy. Assisting him with all aspects of the training are Chef Ronald Nicholas and Chef Portia Lashley. Between them the students have a first class opportunity to learn cooking skills as well as safety standards for food preparation and storage as well as learn how to succeed in the workplace. Graduates leave with 500 hours of kitchen experience, a ServSafe Sanitation certificate and membership in the American Culinary Federation. In house staffer, Nicole Howard, is an employment specialist and helps the graduates find jobs in area restaurants. Some can even go onto furthering their culinary training by enrolling in Hudson Community Colleges culinary classes, leading to a degree.
Judging by the delicious food the students prepared and served and the way they took pride in presentation and set up, I would have to say they are well on their way in sharing their passion for food and becoming a valuable asset to any restaurant that will hire them. And I’m sure many of them will be executive chefs themselves, once given the opportunity.