Now in its 7th year, the S&D Culinary Challenge has become a signature event at JWU Charlotte. This annual demo-based competition, which is sponsored by S&D Coffee, is a great way for students to show off their culinary creativity while sharpening their presentation skills before a panel of industry expert judges.
This year’s theme was “Food Truck Frenzy”; students were asked to take their inspiration from their favorite mobile restaurants. The final dishes could be salty or sweet, but had to incorporate coffee and/or tea as prominent ingredients.
Twenty semifinalists were narrowed down to 10; the finalists were then paired with food truck owner-mentors to help them refine their dishes and get presentation-ready for the February 14th finale, which took place in JWU’s Hance Auditorium.
Senior Chainey Kuykendall took home the grand prize of $5,000 — her second after a 2016 win — for her Coffee ScenTEAd Abura Soba, while her mentor, the Chrome Toaster’s Aaron Rivera, won $5,000 for his chosen charity, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
With back-to-back Culinary Challenges under her belt, Chainey is in a unique position to offer advice for other JWU students looking to compete. We spoke to her and mentor Rivera last week:
Chainey: This was my second challenge. [She placed in the top 20 but did not compete in the finals in 2015.] Now I’m a senior, so I wanted to make sure my dish was fun and approachable. I love Japanese flavors but knew I wouldn’t have time to make a broth-based ramen from scratch. So I decided to do abura soba (油そば), which is an oil-based ramen style [the name translates as “oily noodles”] with chicken fat as the base. I also added chicken cracklings on top. [The other elements in her dish included tea-brined chicken, sweet corn, chopped scallions and a customized furikake topping incorporating tea.]
I also wanted to make the dish interactive. I got bowls with a cover so that the judges would be surprised. I also put the sauce on the bottom so that they could stir it up to their own liking.
Aaron: My whole mentor part was not to change [Chainey’s] dish or change her style. She had her recipe down and she was very organized — she knew her flavors. I recommended that she enhance the tea flavors. We added tea to the chicken cracklings.
Chainey: Stick to your guns and to your gut instincts. The mentors give great feedback but you need to have confidence in your dish.
Aaron: Mentors can sometimes want to overcomplicate a dish. Simplicity wins. That’s what I love about Chainey’s dish. Easy execution, easy plating. I saw too many contestants taking way too much time to plate, and many of them didn’t practice their demos enough. Practice, practice, practice!
Chainey: I took Aaron’s comment about adding furikake — I incorporated ground tea and added it on top to enhance the flavor. [Furikake is a dry Japanese seasoning typically consisting of dried and ground fish, chopped seaweed, sesame seeds and MSG. It is a common ramen topping, and is also sprinkled on top of cooked rice, veggies and fish.]
Aaron: Chainey’s demo was spot-on.
Chainey: I am really shy and I really had to practice a lot. But you have to push yourself because no-one else is going to do it!
Kuykendall is graduating in May and is hoping to work at a eco-friendly summer camp called Gwynn Valley that produces 70% of their own produce on their adjacent farm. Rivera recently sold Tapas 51, his Fort Mill-based restaurant, and moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he and a colleague are working on a trio of restaurant concepts. Follow his Colorado adventures on Instagram.