The chefs at Williams took silver in an an 'Iron Chef' type competition last month.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Iron Chef, meet Iron Ch-Eph.
Four chefs from the Williams College dining service in January competed and won a silver medal in a cooking competition at Saratoga Springs, N.Y.'s, Skidmore College.
The third annual American Culinary Federation-sanctioned event brought in college campuses and restaurants throughout the Northeast, including Cornell University, the University of New Hampshire and, of course, the hosts.
The two-day competition challenges chefs to create a healthy, appetizing and original menu from a surprise market basket of ingredients revealed to the competitors just one hour before they have to submit their menu plan.
"It was just just like an 'Iron Chef' competition," Jerry Byers said, referring to the groundbreaking Japanese television show that spawned a dozen imitators in this country.
Byers was Williams' team leader at the competition and is the associate operations manager at the Paresky Student Center.
"That's the closest thing I can compare it to because it's the only [cooking competition show] I know that's a team thing," Byers said. "It's very cool, very unique. It was my first experience in competition. For three of the four of us there, only one, Jim Butler, was on last year's team."
Miguel Gutierrez and Michael Militello rounded out Williams' quartet.
On Tuesday evening, members of the Williams community and the general public will be able to sample the fruits of their labors. Items from the team's silver-medal winning menu will be served in the college's cafeterias from 5 to 8 p.m. A meal at Whitman's will cost you $11.24; at Driscoll Dining Hall or Mission Park Dining Hall, the cost will be $16.85.
Among the items they prepared for the competition: a root vegetable bisque with king crab, sauteed mushrooms with crispy fried Brussels sprout leaves and micro greens and seared duck served with a blood orange gastrique, cranberry gastrique and pear.
Williams has competed at the Skidmore event each of its first three years. The Ephs came home with bronze medals in 2011 and '12.
"What we do every year is we send out an email in October, and I like to get as many employees interested in it as possible," Williams Executive Chef Mark Thompson said. "The true culinarians come right to the top, the people who are really interested in food.
"The first year, it was our catering team. Last year, it was a mix of individuals from all our units. This year was a mix also.
"We're just really proud of the team."
Byers sounded a little happy just to have survived what he described as "a very nerve-wracking experience."
It starts with the revelation of the mystery market basket — think "theme ingredient" from the "Iron Chef" television show.
Teams are given an hour to devise their menu, incorporating all of the items in the market basket, anything they can find in Skidmore's pantry and outside items they choose to add.
"But anything you get out of the market, you have to use," Byers noted.
The teams then come back the next day to do the actual cooking. But they don't get much of a break, Thompson explained.
"They stayed up until 2 in the morning," he said. "Jerry was sending me emails at 2 a.m. It's a high-pressure thing when you're under the gun. But the team did a great job. I can't say enough about these guys."
Byers said the level of cuisine and kinds of ingredients may not be typical of day-to-day fare at the college, but it is not completely foreign for the staff.
"Previously, I was an assistant catering chef for a number of years," he said. "Making food for the president of the college or the trustees, you're doing that kind of food anyway."
The curve ball at the ACF competition is the element of the unknown.
"They always throw in some oddball item," Byers said. "For me, it was an ancient grain called amaranth. It's something I've used twice in my entire career. ... One of our chefs did a great job making it into a polenta.
"They threw in a monkfish tail. That's not something everyone will see on a regular basis. But I'd worked with it before so I was used to it."