Top chef competition showcases dining staff culinary skills

Showcase participants pose for a quick picture during the competition.
Showcase participants pose for a quick picture during the competition.

While most of campus was closed due to COVID-19, Pat McManus saw an opportunity to teach his staff at Harper Dining Center the fundamentals of culinary arts.

As manager of a dining center, McManus has been involved in the culinary arts for quite some time. After he took part in Southeast Community College’s culinary program, McManus saw an opportunity to pass along what he had learned to staff members in the Harper Dining Center. “We did several labs along with coursework, so the staff was able to get some practical experience,” said McManus. “[I] really wanted to stress professionalism, maximize how to get flavor into foods, and stress growth for our staff.”

In summer 2020 McManus led retreat-style courses and trainings to help staff expand their culinary skills and to showcase their talents to students through foods offered in the dining center.

The program was so engaging that McManus started thinking of ways for staff to showcase what they’d learned. That’s where the idea for the “Harper Top Chef Showcase” was born for this summer. “I wanted [the staff to be able] to show what they had learned to others outside of Harper,” says McManus.

From this concept spawned the showcase consisting of three rounds, where the top scores from each round advanced to the next phase. Round one consisted of nine chefs who were tasked with developing a two-course meal of a salad and entrée with chicken as the required protein. “They needed to fabricate a whole chicken to get the cuts they desired,” McManus explains.

On June 8, participants with the top six scores moved on to round two, a two-course meal consisting of an appetizer and a pork entrée. Next, three winners moved to the final round, a two-course meal consisting of an appetizer and a surf and turf meal. The main course used a cut of ribeye beef as their protein paired with the seafood of the chef’s choice.

Showcase participants were pleased with their experience. Tucker Seaman, Harper Dining production manager and competing chef explains, “I’m glad we had the opportunity to show off our abilities. With a set menu, employees don’t always get to show off their own personal style. It was cool to see what everyone came up with, and how nice they could make a plate look.” He went on to say that “[t]his showcase has opened up what our staff is capable of and where I can push them to be better.”

Throughout the competition different individuals served as judges, including campus leaders and members of the University Housing leadership team. McManus said he would like to see this sort of training become standard on campus in Dining Services. He added that plans are already being made for next year’s showcase. “I would like to implement this as a course for our employees to be a certification-type training in the future.”

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