On Feb. 24, the UC Davis Dining Commons hosted the Green Chef Challenge. Teams of students, each representing one of the three dining commons — Cuarto, Segundo and Tercero — competed to craft a vegetarian dish using produce from the Student Farm.
At 6 p.m., the secret ingredient was revealed: fennel. The teams had an hour and a half to craft their dish before they were whisked away to Segundo for judgment. On March18, the winning dish will be featured as an entrée in the dining commons.
“I’m really competitive,” said Amanda Nieh, a fourth-year clinical nutrition major. “As soon as I heard ‘cooking competition,’ I knew I wanted to do this.”
Nieh, a contestant on Segundo’s team, said she has plenty of experience cooking — she also holds a job as a teaching kitchen assistant at the Student Wellness Center. Nieh said she saw an advertisement for the event during one of her visits to the dining commons.
“They said you don’t have to be a chef, you can just sign up,” Nieh said. “No experience required.”
To help level the playing field, each team received guidance from a sous chef (kitchen under-chef). According to Ben Thomas, sustainability manager of UC Davis Dining Services, the sous chefs were present only to offer techniques and advice.
“We really try to make it equal and fair,” Thomas said. “We want to let the students lead the development of the dishes.”
Around 6:30 p.m., students flooding into Segundo stopped to watch the contestants chopping vegetables behind the tables cluttered with cutting boards and bowls, while Thomas stood by to inform the curious onlookers.
Thomas said the Green Chef Challenge started in 2011. He explained how a group of students involved with various sustainable food projects wanted to put on a fun event to call attention to their efforts. Following the success of the television show “Iron Chef,” he said they came up with the Green Chef Challenge. In this case, the competition specifically uses seasonal produce.
The Green Chef Challenge also makes an effort to use only local foods, according to Nicole Lesnett, a fifth-year international relations major and ground coordinator for the campus’ dining services.
“The Student Farm is as local as you could possibly get for food,” Lesnett said.
She said the Student Farm has been around since 1977, but only grew large enough to supply the dining commons as early as 2011. As ground coordinator, her job includes transporting produce from the Student Farm to the dining services.
She explained that this closer source of food means significantly less emissions and lower costs for transportation. However, she said the Student Farm still only has six marketable acres of year-round produce.
“When the winning dish is featured in a month from now, it isn’t guaranteed that it’s all coming from this student farm,” Lesnett said. “The sheer volume [of the order] might require more than the farm grows.”
Despite this limitation, she said an effort will still be made to order produce from local sources. However, she said each dining common has different standards.
“Everything in the Cuarto salad bar, usually, is food that’s in season,” Lesnett said. “That’s part of being sustainable.”
Even during winter, she said, Cuarto provides vegetables appropriate for the season, whereas Segundo and Tercero will use out of season vegetables like cherry tomatoes and corn.
Therefore, she said the dishes made at the Green Chef Challenge might encourage a greater percentage of local food use.
Joanna Wirkus, a fourth-year clinical nutrition major, nutrition intern with dining services and one of the event’s judges, said she was excited to see how teams would combine the Student Farm ingredients.
Wirkus, Jianna Robertson, a student programmer for sustainability in student housing, and Raoul Adamchak, Market Garden and CSA coordinator of the Student Farm, were this quarter’s judges, and just before 7:30 p.m., the Cuarto and Tercero teams arrived to present their dishes.
Before the competition, Nieh said she isn’t the type to use a recipe — she’d prefer to use what’s there and throw it together. Her team’s dish, “Veggie Bao,” reflected that style: she said they sautéed all their vegetables and stuffed them into balls of pizza dough baked with egg wash. They topped the dumplings with tahini sauce and added a side of pickled fennel.
Tercero presented their “Curry Potato Pancakes,” featuring a vegetable curry, marinated tofu and a garnish of pickled fennel with onions.
Cuarto’s ‘Fennelicious Frittata’ sat upon grilled flatbread topped with a carrot and dill salad, with a side of roasted beet chutney. After the judge’s scores were added up, Cuarto’s dish won first place, with just a few points more than Segundo’s.
Thomas said to look out for the next Green Chef Challenge, planned for Spring Quarter. He said the sous chefs will work with new teams to keep things fresh and, of course, there will be a new secret ingredient.