Chuck France/University Relations

Joe Pruitt, chef dé cuisine for KU Dining Services, recently took part in an "Iron-Chef"-style regional competition for university chefs, earning a silver medal.

KU chef earns silver in culinary showdown

Pruitt blends mushroom, Peruvian spices in dish

As any parent can attest, it’s not easy to prepare a tasty, healthy meal for a demanding crowd while working against the clock with limited supplies. Joe Pruitt recently had an hour to prepare a dish that had to please three master chefs.

Pruitt, chef dé cuisine for KU Dining Services, recently took part in a competition similar to the "Iron Chef" television show at the National Association of College and Union Food Services’ Midwest Regional Conference Culinary Challenge at the University of Akron. He went up against chefs from the University of Notre Dame, University of Northern Michigan, University of Missouri-Columbia, Northwestern University, Ashland University, University of Iowa, Central College and Iowa State University and came away with a silver medal.

Competitors were given 30 minutes to prepare ingredients, such as washing and chopping vegetables, and five minutes to set up their cooking stations. They had 60 minutes to prepare a set number of hot entrees, side dishes and sauces featuring an selected primary ingredient. This year’s ingredient was a 4 ½- to 5-inch portobello mushroom. The dish also had to be nutritionally balanced, contain protein and a limited number of calories. He decided to go vegan with his dish, a quinoa and black lentil gateau.

Submitted/Joe Pruitt

Joe Pruitt's dish, a portobello quinoa and black lentil gateau

“I was intrigued by it,” Pruitt said of the portobello mushroom main dish. “Vegan is the way it ended up going. I thought adding a meat to it would detract from the main feature, the portobello.”

Quinoa, a grain used commonly in Peruvian cooking, accompanied black lentils, which provided the protein. Pruitt also blended in tourned carrots and julienne aji peppers, red pepper and leeks. He credits the Peruvian influence to his supervisor, Janna Traver, executive chef at KU Memorial Unions, who grew up in Peru. Pruitt cut and shaped the portobello to resemble a flower for one of the requirements. The entree was one Pruitt had been experimenting with before the competition.

“I’d been working on the dish for months,” he said. “I’d change it, take pictures, try again. I sent it to my old instructor at Johnson County Community College, he looked it over and gave me some tips.”

Once the dish was plated, it was presented to the judges. They tasted it, asked questions and literally dissected it, inspecting for presentation and proper cuts. Officials watched for sanitation as well, using the chefs’ jackets as an indicator of cleanliness.

“The white coat tells all,” Pruitt said. “They’re looking for your coat to be as white as when you started.”

Dishes were graded on a scale of 40 possible points. While judges didn’t tell competitors their total score, he knows he did well enough to earn a silver medal.

Though the chefs were in unfamiliar kitchens, they at least knew they’d be working with familiar tools. All that was provided were a few basic tools like a cutting board, induction burners and a chafing dish. Pruitt brought along part of his own kitchen, including pots, pans, knives, a strainer and blender. They were also required to bring along their own raw, uncooked, unprocessed ingredients.

The KU community will get a chance to judge the entrée as well. Pruitt’s medal winning dish will be served at the Impromptu Café in the near future.

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