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U of O finalists prepare to compete in inter-university challenge

 Photo courtesy of Myriam Hugron

Saffron, crab, artichokes, vanilla bean, and mushrooms make for a strange combination of recipe ingredients. For the University of Ottawa’s Iron Chef Challenge winners? Not so much.

On Jan. 25, Three professional chefs judged a two-hour competition at SITE as U of O students put their cooking skills to the test for the chance to compete at the upcoming inter-university Iron Chef final challenge in Montreal. Fourth-year students Anh Nguyen, Carly Shier, and Glenn Hay walked away with first place.

The 15 competing teams were each given a black box of ingredients and were encouraged to use as many as possible to make one meat dish and one vegetarian dish.

Nguyen, the team captain, names his mother as his first inspiration to cook and was influenced by her Vietnamese bun rieu recipe to create one of their two winning dishes.

“It was a soft-shell crab-based soup with vermicelli,” said Nguyen, a Telfer student. “Crab was used to make the broth, and the rest I minced and ground by hand to make pan fried crab cakes.”

Shier, a Telfer finance student, and Hay, a biology student, focused on the requisite vegetarian dish. Shier’s interest in cooking stems from being a picky eater growing up.

“I have no professional training, but I go through periods of my life when I’m very particular about what I want to eat, and that’s when I started cooking more,” she said.

None of the three had ever cooked competitively until Nguyen decided to participate in the challenge and invited two friends to join him, although they hadn’t met before.

“I put the team together thinking that everyone would work well together and that we would have great chemistry,” he said, “and it worked splendidly.”

The three were quick to share their go-to dishes.

“If it’s last-minute, I go for a stir-fry,” said Shier. “It’s a good way to clear out your fridge, and a very adaptable recipe.”

Nguyen’s go-to recipe is the Vietnamese spring roll. He said, “You can put whatever vegetables you want in them with any protein. Match that with a good fish or other dipping sauce and you have a deliciously fresh and easy meal.”

Nguyen also stressed the importance of having fun and playing with tastes while cooking.

“Visualize your plates, bowls, wooden planks, or whatever you are using to serve as a canvas. Like paintbrushes, your knives, mashers, graters, and other tools will give different strokes and texture to what you cook, so play around and have fun making something beautiful. Your experience, knowledge, creativity and innovation are what makes you the culinary artist.”

The team is currently training with their mentor chef Jason Juarez in preparation for the finals on Feb. 8 against the University of Massachusetts Boston, McGill University, and the University of Toronto.

“We’re going to try to represent (the U of O) not only in terms of good food, but also by acting in a way that we’re proud of and that we know represents the school,” Shier said. “And we, of course, want to win.”


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