Ten culinary students had extra pressure while competing Sunday at the KTA Super Stores Kona Coffee Recipe Contest. Besides earning recognition, prizes and bragging rights, the students were aiming for a good grade on their midterm exam.
About five or six years ago, Paul Heerlein, an assistant professor and Culinary Arts Program coordinator at the University of Hawaii Center at West Hawaii, decided to incorporate the contest with the coursework for his intermediate cooking class. He thought it was important that these aspiring culinary professional get hands-on experience that allows them to think creatively, utilize local products and confidently apply the process — all of which are necessary for real-world success. He also likes how their participation is great exposure for the community college in Kealakekua.
To prepare his students, Heerlein did a demonstration months ago, when he prepared a competition-worthy coffee rubbed chicken with sweet potatoes. He also had some insight into what was expected because he helped create the judging guidelines for the contest.
Sunday’s entries were rated on presentation and general impression, plate or platter design, competition and harmony of ingredients, correct preparation and craftsmanship, and serving method and portions. Heerlein likes that the expectations are very straightforward and clear. For instance, dishes had to appetizing and tastefully pleasing to the eye, as well as nutritionally well-balanced and in keeping with modern trends, while the table displays had to be well-crafted and appropriate to the Kona coffee theme.
No matter the outcome, Heerlein hoped the experience gained at the contest helps make his students better cooks.
Part of the 43rd annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, the recipe contest showcased sweet and savory entries while also featuring the versatility of Kona coffee and the creativity of competitors. All had to used 100 percent Kona coffee for their desserts and entrees, said Claire Robinson, the event’s chairwoman.
There were four categories. Participants could either compete as a food service industry professional, amateur who love to cook, high school or college student enrolled in a culinary arts program, or keiki. However, the latter did not generate any entries this year. There were 20 entries in three categories during Sunday’s contest, which was held at the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay.
Prizes were given to the first, second and third place winners in each division and category. There were cash prizes, KTA Super Stores gift certificates ranging from $50 to $200, certificates, trophies, ribbons and one-year memberships in the American Culinary Federation.
Sous Chef Angela Kenyon at the Beach Tree Restaurant at Four Seasons Resort Hualalai had less than a week to prepare for Sunday’s contest. She returned from a two-month stay in Italy to the Big Island just three days ago. But she did not fret for two reasons. First, this was her fourth year competing in this contest. And second, her adventure abroad was inspiring. It reinforced how food brings people together, as well as what it means to and does for families and communities.
For her first place-winning entry, Kenyon created something that celebrated the island’s bounty, what was in season, and the passionate people who created her ingredients. Her goal was to make something regional, artisanal and seasonal with simple, rustic ingredients. She made Kona coffee braised short ribs with smoked kabocha pumpkin puree and roasted alii mushrooms. She got her products from Green Gecko Coffee, Adaptations Inc. and Hamakua Mushrooms.
This was Gary Cyr’s second time competing in the contest. This year, the second-year culinary student from South Kona decided to compete in both divisions. He won second place for his Kona coffee-crusted pork shoulder inspired by kalua pork. He also got second for his Kona coffee cinnamon buns with honey cream frosting. While experimenting and preparing both entries, this avid coffee drinker felt it was important to really highlight the unique flavors of all products used.
What Cyr enjoyed most about the competition was how it pushed his creativity in a fun way and gave him the opportunity to really test his skills on food preparation, cooking techniques and presentation. Cyr, 46, has been cooking his whole life. It’s an art he enjoys so much that enrolled in the culinary program at the University of Hawaii Center at West Hawaii after retiring eight years ago from being a Navy construction mechanic.
While the judges did their sampling, Sam Varron, a cook at the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay, hoped his entries were pleasing to the eye and successful in tempting and tantalizing taste buds. His recipes proved to be hits. He won first place for his Kona coffee creme brulee and third place for his stuffed chicken mousseline.
Varron said he enjoys using local products, including Kona coffee, in his dishes on a daily basis. What he likes most about Kona coffee is how it’s not bitter and doesn’t have a charred taste. Instead, it’s a rich, smooth, full-bodied coffee that blends well with many things, he added.
Competitions like the one Sunday are important for chefs of ages and levels because they’re forced to think outside-of-the-box and beyond their normal recipes. It’s also a chance to learn and see something new, as well as improve, Varron said.