Dining Services Chefs Earn Silver Medal at Culinary Competition

Alyse Katapsis, Liz Stern, Carole Risoli, and Ben Peak

Dining Services chefs Alyse Katsapis, Liz Stern, Carole Risoli, and Ben Peak

Same chefs, different day.

So explains Ben Peak for a team of Swarthmore Dining Services chefs who earned a silver medal at an American Culinary Federation Conference and Competition last month.

“We knew that it would be an intense atmosphere, but really, this is what we do every day,” says Peak, executive chef, who collaborated with Alyse Katsapis, Liz Stern, and Carole Risoli. “Our feeling was, let’s go on up there and compete.”

The sixth-annual conference culminated in a "Chopped"-style competition featuring chefs from 11 northeast colleges and universities, including Cornell, Williams, and host institution Skidmore. It challenged teams to prepare four-course meals from the same “mystery basket” of ingredients.

Each team has an hour to devise a menu and two hours to prepare an entree, a buffet item, and a dessert — under the watchful eyes of seven master chefs. The judges assess taste, presentation, originality, teamwork, and more.

“It’s a competition, and it gets intense,” says Peak. “There aren't any ovens or stove tops, so you’re cooking on butane. It’s, 'Okay, the sauce is reducing over there, maybe more than we wanted, we’ve got this thing going, let’s check on that.' The two hours go by pretty quickly.

“But we stuck together and communicated well,” he adds. “We kicked it.”

“They were very smart and poised throughout the process and how they executed everything,” says catering manager Frank Esposito of the Swarthmore team. “I was super psyched to watch it all come together.”

Esposito previously worked at Skidmore, where he helped to organize and also competed in the competition. Earlier this year, he suggested that Swarthmore participate to build camaraderie.

“Our chefs jumped all over it,” he says.

To acclimate itself to the rules, the Swarthmore team did a test run before making the College’s debut with the competition.

“We wanted to see how we’d function as a team and think about all the different scenarios that we could stumble on,” says Peak. “After that, we were pretty much prepared for anything.”

The mystery basket contained skate wing, pheasant, bison steak, uncured bacon, potatoes, and greens, among other ingredients.

“It was pretty challenging,” says Peak. “But our attitude was, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s get some flavors going.’”

The judges applauded the flavors of the Swarthmore team’s meal and had only minor critiques of the overall effort, says Peak. Having come close to a gold medal, the team is eyeing a return to the competition in the future.

Aside from competition, the event offers professional development and networking opportunities to the chefs, including demonstrations from and discussions with the master chefs on topics like market factors and curing meats.

“It’s a chance to bring all of these talented chefs together to interact and work with one another in a new way,” says Esposito.

And, says Dining Services Director Linda McDougall, it’s a chance to showcase dedicated professionals.

“Winning a silver medal is icing on the cake and proof of what I already knew,” she says. “We have a very talented culinary team.”