Great cooking is all about chemistry. It also can be all about teamwork as three Dominican University students will show during an international competition in San Juan, Puerto Rico this week.
Dylan Donovan, Morganne Schmidt and Joseph Oh comprise one of four teams to cook up an indigenous-themed dessert in the International Student Culinology competition. They will be making their gold-standard dessert – a dessert that can be served in a high-end restaurant – on March 16.
The contest is sponsored by the Research Chefs Association, a professional community for food research and development. Its members are the pioneers of the discipline of culinology, the blending of culinary arts and the science of food. Dominican is one of 16 institutions with the program.
In 1.45 hours, including 15 minutes for set up, the trio will prepare six servings of Brazo Gitano, a spiced sponge cake filled with guava paste, coquito cream cheese (a Puerto Rican version of eggnog) and garnished with confectioner's sugar.
The dessert is drizzled with passion fruit gel and garnished with a guava half, topped with pieces of fried plantains and coconut meringue. In addition to flour, sugar, beaten egg whites to make it rise and egg yolks, the cake contains cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.
They also have to talk about how to prepare a commercial version of the dish for 500,000. The team had to tailor the gold standard ingredients to manufacturing capabilities and explain how they came up with ways to replicate the coconut rum, egg yolks and egg whites.
The commercial version will not be prepared in San Juan, but was made in advance. Six samples will be shipped frozen to San Juan. They will be judged on how alike the two versions are. The chefs also had to create and design the packaging for the commercial version.
The competition is a labor of love and has been since the three decided last fall to join the competition. They are not getting class credit for this, but because they wanted to participate, Donovan said.
Coming up with a product took a lot of research; then it took a lot of refinement. They looked around the Humboldt Park neighborhood, visited Puerto Rican grocery stores and restaurants, looked through cookbooks, talked with Puerto Rican faculty and had them weigh in on ideas.
"We got inspired by doing this," Donovan said.
After deciding on their approach, they started meeting 10 hours a week every week for four to five months. They refined the product to get it just right, making sure it had the right amount of spices, the egg whites were beaten just right and everything melded perfectly. Donovan said.
"We would think about the last version and used the scientific method to keep track of what we changed and changed a variable [ingredient] and just kept refining it until it was just right," said Donovan.
The chefs tweaked the dish about 20 times to try to create the best product, balance sugar and flavors and make sure they all worked together, Oh said. Along the way, they had to prepare a 21-page proposal, create and design the packaging for the commercial version.
They heard in mid-January they would compete. Before the competition, they had to pack up all the pots and pans and mixers they'd need, and six of the commercial samples, Oh said.
"Shipping it there is almost equally as challenging as the onsite competition," Donovan said. "We have to make sure there's enough ice. It's pretty hot and humid down there and we don't want it to go bad."
The competition will be high-pressure. When they're there, each chef will have a different task. Donovan prepares a lot of items on the stove top, poaching the guava fruit and making the coquito cream cheese.
Schmidt will prepare the cake. "To make sure it comes out perfectly," she said, "you don't want them to be overbeaten."
She'll also make the coconut frozen yogurt for the poached guava.
"The time to make that is out of the bounds of the competition, so we're bringing our already frozen version," Schmidt said.
Oh will prepare the coconut meringue and the fried plantain chips.
"I've dabbled in sushi so I will be rolling the cake making sure it's nice and circled," Oh said.
Just being able to take part has been a great experience, Donovan said, who earned a degree in culinary and hospitality at a technical school in Muskegon before coming to Dominican.
"It helped me balance all the culinary skills that I would not have if I hadn't been part of the competition," said Donovan, whose family was in the catering business outside Detroit and worked at a hotel in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "I learned a lot about cooking and baking that I didn't know before."
Schmidt, whose background is in chemistry, learned a lot on "all levels."
"I also learned a lot about Puerto Rican cuisine, that's so cool. This has been awesome," said Schmidt, whose mother, a baker, taught her a lot. Schmidt hails from the Chicago area.
For Oh, the competition has been great hands-on experience.
"This is what I'll be doing out in the field," said Oh, who got a culinary arts degree at Kendall College and had some experience at Chicago's Peninsula Hotel. "I learned to do a lot of different things and put a Puerto Rican spin on things."