Bellingham college’s culinary students head to regional cook-off in Las Vegas

In the teaching kitchen at Bellingham Technical College, culinary student Anastasia Lagutochkin squeezed a cut finger lime until the pulp popped out — the little beads of juice looking round as caviar.

“See. Isn’t that beautiful?” Lagutochkin said of the citrusy tasting “caviar” that was part of the appetizer she was making during a practice session Friday, Feb. 27.

The Bellingham resident was one of five members of the BTC hot food team preparing for the American Culinary Federation’s western regional March 20-21 in Las Vegas.

Their cooking competition is Saturday, March 21. At least six or seven student teams will face off.

In addition to a timed cooking portion, the students also will compete in a skills section to show they can properly fillet a fish, butcher a chicken, julienne vegetable or fruit, and roll out a perfect tart shell, among other kitchen techniques.

To represent Washington in the regional competition, the BTC team had to first win gold in the state competition in January, which it did by beating out Walla Walla Community College and Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Seattle.

If they win in Las Vegas, members will represent the West at nationals in Florida. Last year, they came in fourth in the regional competition.

Michael Baldwin, BTC chef instructor, is their coach.

Such competitions push the students to be better chefs and cooks, he said.

“It’s real world. It takes teamwork in the kitchen to produce food, and it takes the same thing in a competition format,” Baldwin said, adding that the time limit also mimics the pressure they would face preparing food for diners.

On this Friday morning, BTC’s team members were working on elements of their dishes, but they weren’t under time pressure. (In competition, they will have 90 minutes to assemble, cook, plate and serve four courses for the judges. They will be docked points if they go past their time, or don’t keep their space clean and organized as they work.)

These practice sessions have occurred since June or July, barring vacations. The students have changed and refined their dishes along the way under the guidance of instructors such as Baldwin, who critiques the dishes for such things as flavor, texture, color and presentation.

“You’re always trying to raise it to the next bar. How can we make it better and never being satisfied with the status quo?” Baldwin said.

The team and their dishes are:

• Lagutochkin, of Bellingham, appetizer. Hers is a

John Dory

fish starter, with lobster mousse piped on top, orange cauliflower puree, chive oil, faux caviar from the finger lime, and asparagus.

• Marshal Reed, an Everson resident, salad. His is a roasted beet salad with house-made ricotta and smoked tomato vinaigrette.

• Colin Reed, of Bellingham, main course. Also called the classical dish, the poulet sauté a la bourguignonne must be prepared according to chef Georges Auguste Escoffier, whose influence reaches all the way back to his 1903 classic “Le Guide Culinaire.”

“It’s considered the bible of culinary art,” said team member Leesa Sorber of the Escoffier work.

This is the dish that all the teams will make.

“They’re going to see who interprets Escoffier the best,” Colin said of his course, which, he explained, was basically chicken braised in red wine. “That’s what makes doing the classical dish hard, there’s so many different ways to interpret it.”

• Sorber, a Bellingham resident, dessert of Earl Grey panna cotta, lemon mousse, lavender genoise cake, blackberry sorbet and orange pistachio biscotti. The confection was inspired by Sorber’s love of Earl Grey tea and has 14 components.

“If one component doesn’t work out, it’s nerve-wracking,” Sorber said.

• Ben Garding, of Bellingham, alternate. His role is to help gather items needed by other team members during the competition and to keep them on task and on time. Garding, who has made everyone’s course a few times, also will step in if his teammates can’t make their dish for whatever reason.

As for the practice session, four of the team members were bustling about in the teaching kitchen part of BTC’s Café Culinaire.

Lagutochkin blanched sea beans — they’re tiny and taste like seaweed — and then put them into ice water. A little later, she described the John Dory’s spiky appearance. “It’s so scary. I think it’s really cool,” she said of the fish.

Next to her, Colin Reed was preparing the chicken, which sizzled as he dropped it into a pan of rendered bacon fat.

Behind Lagutochkin, Sorber was preparing her dessert while standing near a bowl with little balloons blown up for her by Garding.

The balloons served as the mold for small cups for the sorbet in Sorber’s dessert.

She first combined sugar and water, then boiled the mixture to the hard-crack stage at about 310 degrees. She let it cool a bit, then dipped in the balloons to coat their bottom half before rolling them in crushed pistachio. When the sugar hardened, she popped the balloons and peeled them away.

“So delicious. It’s sugar and nuts, you can’t go wrong,” she said on Tuesday, March 17, as the team prepared to fly to Las Vegas the next day — bringing along their supplies and ingredients, all 500 pounds of them, for the competition.