Student chefs use food pantry items to create meals in challenge

The Salvation Army says it’s not hard to make chef-quality meals out of food pantry items. To prove it, it presented The Salvation Army Culinary Challenge May 16 at Technique restaurant inside Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, 1451 Center Crossing Road.

The evening was run along the lines of the Food Network’s reality show “Chopped,” with four students — two from the College of Southern Nevada’s culinary program and two from Le Cordon Bleu — vying for the win.

The kicker? All the ingredients were those typically found in a charity’s food pantry.

The competing students were Jenny Dominguez and Robert Pucak from Le Cordon Bleu and Audrey Simmons and Richard Campbell from CSN. The judges, all self-admitted “foodies,” were Leslee Rogers, director of public relations for The Salvation Army; Dayna Roselli, media personality; and Kathy Wessman, executive chef at Le Cordon Bleu.

After the National Guard presented the flag and the national anthem was played, Matt Haynes, food drive kettle coordinator for The Salvation Army, took the wireless mic and the challenge began.

The evening’s competition had each chef making an appetizer, an entree and a dessert. For each challenge, their baskets contained three mystery ingredients. The appetizer segment, for example, gave them a can of beets, a can of black olives and a pound of ground beef. The chefs were to be judged on taste, originality and presentation. They were given 20 minutes to come up with their masterpieces.

Roselli compared the time restriction to doing the news on television.

“Sometimes you had to do a story that had to be on at 5 o’clock,” she said. “It’s stressful to do things under a time restraint. But stress can (spur) creativity.”

Pucak said he’d never been under pressure of that kind of before, especially being constrained by the main ingredients.

“There are always things you wish you had … I wish I had an egg,” he said as he diced a red pepper.

When Dominguez first saw the ingredients, what thought came immediately to mind?

“Pray,” she said. “Hopefully I can make something good out of this.”

Each chef came up with a meatball or cooked ground beef variation. The judges tasted each dish and commented on them. Dominguez said she was from the bakery and pastry program, a bit of a disadvantage in this challenge. Even so, it was Campbell who was the first to be voted off.

The entree portion was next. It gave each chef three new ingredients: chicken, green beans and a package of ramen noodles. They were given 30 minutes.

Attendees grouped at the front of the room to watch at the windows as the chefs whipped up their next creations. The aroma of cooking wafted through the room as Haynes kept up a running commentary.

Simmons was first to finish with a Chinese-style dish with sautéed chicken and sliced almonds.

An extra plate was made up of each contestant’s creation, and Maj. Rhonda Lloyd carried it from table to table so everyone saw the presentation and got a good whiff of the food.

Pucak made a type of fettucini with a salsa aspect using papaya and red onion. Dominguez mixed jalapeno, lemon juice, onion, garlic and red pepper. She was the next to be voted off.

The final category was the dessert. The ingredients were pancake mix, Honey Nut cereal and canned pear halves. This time, they were given 30 minutes.

The evening began at 6 p.m., and many of the 50 people in the audience came straight from work. It was now after 8 p.m. Mavis Long returned to her seat after watching the chefs work on the dessert.

“I came here on an empty stomach,” she said. “Now, it feels like my stomach is eating at my spine.”

Tyson Behrans said he wished he “could go up there and have some.”

Le Cordon Bleu staff members were on top of it and passed out tasting cups with their own creation, sliced strawberries set in whipped cream with a drizzle of chocolate.

The final challenge saw the contestants whip up similar pancake-looking dishes. Pucak’s included a pear-juice glaze, which set his apart to take the win. That victory, along with his previous scores, earned him the Culinary Challenge prize, a free night’s stay at the Mirage and a free buffet for two.

A $25 donation served as the admission fee and went to support the food pantry’s newest program, called Garden of Eden, which will add fresh fruits and vegetables to its offerings. Plans are to make the Culinary Challenge an annual event.

For more information, visit salvation

Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at or 702-387-2949.

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