Cooking is officially cool.
Actually, it has been for some time now, manifesting itself through the surge in popularity of food
programming on television, food blogging online, and the emergence of food personalities as celebrities.
Only a few years ago, you probably didn’t give a second thought to who was cooking your meals in restaurants; now you could probably recognize Paula Deen or Mario Batali on sight.
Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and subsequent books have sparked an enormous amount of interest in the particulars of working in a kitchen and eating around the world. Rachel Ray has shown millions of people that it’s not terribly difficult to throw together a meal in their own kitchen. Alton Brown makes the science of cooking accessible and interesting in thirty-minute nuggets.
Never before has food and cooking been so popular, so engaging, and so important. Eating and cooking has become eminently trendy, and most recently, with a favorable slant toward cooking with healthy, sustainable ingredients.
It’s not the easiest thing to find culinary innovation and creativity in Tacoma but that is not to say it doesn’t exist. In fact, it’s often hiding right under our noses, in unassuming neighborhoods, and in this case, at a school without an actual cooking program: Pacific Lutheran University, located in Tacoma’s Parkland neighborhood, has jumped on the emerging interest in food and has been steadily cultivating and harboring the culinary passion of students and staff alike.
Not only has PLU gone out of their way to invest seriously in the quality of the food offered to students, staff, faculty, and visitors, but they recently opened a new restaurant and Culinary and Dining Services has, for the past five years, hosted a Culinary Week on campus. This event hosts classes and seminars about food science and recipe demonstrations, much of which is open to the public. Culinary Week culminates in a cooking competition reminiscent of television programs like “Chopped,” “Top Chef,” and “Iron Chef America.”
I’ve had the distinct pleasure to participate in this competition in April, dubbed ‘The Commons on Fire,’ for the last three years. As a student at Pacific Lutheran University, I first competed in the event, then took a seat at the chef’s table and judged the event the following year.
Last month, I was offered the chance to judge the event again, along with PLU student Alexis Ballinger and chef-owner of Marrow Kitchen & Bar Kyle Wnuk.
The event is half competition and half party. PLU’s Culinary department always provides snacks and prizes for raffle drawings while the hour-long cooking time speeds by. Teams are made up of Culinary department staff, PLU faculty, and PLU students.
The event is open to the public and presided over by Erin McGinnis, director of PLU’s Dining & Culinary Services department. Each team cooks from the same list of “mystery” ingredients and a well-stocked pantry, along with full use of the kitchens and equipment. Teams present both an appetizer and an entrée to the judges which must use all the mystery ingredients.
While participating in the event as a student cook was a blast, I’ve enjoyed judging the event even more. The creativity and ambition that the teams put into their dishes is incredible; made even more incredible by the fact that some of the students and faculty have never cooked with, let alone heard of, some of the mystery ingredients.
This year’s most buzzed-about ingredient was Gjetost cheese, a Norwegian goat cheese that looks, and tastes, amazingly like caramel. Other ingredients included grass-fed beef, turbot (a fairly large, flat fish), and habanero peppers.
The most dazzling dish of the night was a composed plate of potatoes coated in a gjetost sauce, topped with a thin cut of steak and a fermented black bean compound butter. The funkiness of the butter melded with the sweet creaminess of the cheese in an over-the-top, unexpectedly phenomenal way.
Virtually every dish of the night was impressively tasty and as judges, we had to have a difficult discussion to determine who would receive Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals. But in the end, it’s not really about who wins first place; it’s about enjoying cooking and good food. You can see more of the 2012 event at the PLU Dining and Culinary Services facebook page here.
PLU’s Commons on Fire is a wonderful and refreshingly forward-thinking event that, I can only hope, will continue, growing in popularity and inspiring people to become more involved and attentive to what they eat, and the way they cook.