Four teams of two contestants were hurriedly at work Thursday morning in the kitchen at Grand Rapids Community College’s Secchia Institute for Culinary Education. Aside from the swift strokes of the knives and the hushed chatter of those in the viewing area, the competition hosted by GRCC was rather quiet in the beginning. However, as time progressed, so too did the pace of the student chefs.
Welcome to the Nation’s Cup International Culinary Competition that will crown a winner Saturday, Oct. 19. Canada, Mexico, Scotland, and the United States are among the nations competing, and Team USA is the defending champion in this biennial event.
The students are tasked with creating dishes for six different categories: appetizer, pasta, fish/shellfish, game, poultry, and dessert. There are mystery ingredients presented for each course that must be worked into the dishes.
The coach of team USA is an assistant professor at GRCC, Sasha Ahmed. She has had quite a bit of exposure in the field. In 2009, Ahmed competed in the Nations’ Cup as a student and won. Ahmed has been an instructor at GRCC since 2011 and has advised in five of these competitions.
“I have an understanding and some empathy for the stress that they’re under,” Ahmed said. “I think it makes it a little easier to coach them and get them ready because I do kind of know what to expect in terms of the layout of the competition.”
Sidney Hyde and Shaylan Owen, the students representing the U.S. , underwent quite a bit of coaching to prepare for this event.
“All of our students were given the opportunity to try out to be on the team,” Ahmed said. “We had 16 students that tried out. They did a mystery box style competition like this and then we asked half of them back to do it again. Ultimately, they had the two highest scores.”
Since Hyde and Owen were selected, they have been practicing three days a week for the past seven weeks. Ahmed had the students routinely work with unique ingredients to help prepare them for the mystery box competition.
According to Ahmed, Canadian and American cuisine tends to have a lot of crossovers. In an effort to stand out amongst their competitors, Ahmed and her team decided on an “identifiably American” approach.
“We really want to focus on American cuisine, which gets a little muddy sometimes because we’re such a melting pot of different cultures,” Ahmed said. “We kind of focused on regions. So for their appetizer today they focused on southern components.”
Coach for the Canadian team, Kevin Boyce, from The Culinary Institute of Canada in Prince Edward Island, is well versed in this competition as well. Boyce has lead a team to the competition five times.
The Canadian team had an overall idea of what they were going to prepare for each course and then planned to incorporate the mystery box ingredients as best they could.
“Depending on what they get for their surprise ingredients, they can manipulate it in a different direction,” Boyce said.
Boyce stated that while it’s exciting to watch the competition, it’s also challenging.
“It’s painful as a coach because you can’t talk to them,” Boyce said. “Sometimes you want to get in and help them.”
Ahmed agreed with Boyce’s sentiments.
“It’s hard not being able to communicate with them while they’re on the spot,” Ahmed said.
Three rounds of competition have now completed.
“I think for my team, and probably all of them, I noticed they were pretty nervous for the first one this morning,” Ahmed said. “High anxiety for everybody. I think that once they all got that first one out of the way all calmed down a lot more.”
Ahmed stated that the mystery ingredients haven’t been too difficult to work with just yet. However, she stated that they usually progress in difficulty and anticipates tomorrow will be “pretty crazy.”
There are three more rounds of competition Friday. A five course meal and an awards ceremony will be held on Saturday.
You can watch live coverage of the competition here.