By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
On Wednesday, April 27, six students from three Oxnard high schools participated in an Iron Chef-style competition at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Mandalay Beach Resort, and dessert was on the menu.
The Second Annual Mandalay Mystery Basket Competition — dubbed “Sweets by the Beach” — is a partnership between Oxnard Union High School District and Embassy Suites (with an assist from the Ventura County Civic Alliance). Its goal is to put Oxnard’s culinary arts programs in the spotlight and foster an interest in careers in the food and hospitality industries. Teams of two students from Pacifica, Rio Mesa and Oxnard High Schools participated in this year’s event, and were tasked with designing, cooking and presenting a dessert within a one-hour limit, incorporating the mystery ingredients selected by Embassy Suites Head Chef Nikki Newman. A panel of five judges — Chef Mike Lodi, president of the American Culinary Federation; Chef Robert Vrable of the Ventura Rescue Mission; Ms. Pat Doler, culinary arts coordinator for Ventura County Adult Continuing Education; Chef Ali Smith of Spicetopia; and Chef Kayla Hernandez, instructor for Ventura High School’s Culinary Arts program — rated the desserts on appearance, presentation, taste, texture and creativity.
The students themselves made a strong impression with their professionalism and composure in the face of cameras, photographers and journalists milling about and frequently asking questions. Staying calm and on task in the high-pressure environment of a professional kitchen is a must, and these kids were models of aplomb.
Kudos as well to their ambition: All three teams went for slick sophistication, aiming to impress the judges with their culinary artistry utilizing the “mystery” ingredients: ginger, cilantro and passion fruit. Pacifica’s Ilima Bachmeier and Adrian Bernardo put together a ginger-infused panna cotta with a strawberry pastry cream, cilantro sugar and passion fruit gastrique, beautifully presented with a garnish of crystallized sugar arches. Alondra Corona and Jessica Rivera from Rio Mesa kept it cool: passion fruit sorbet served with ginger cream and cilantro sauce. Passion fruit shells for bowls, a scattering of berries, elegant caramelized sugar “lollipops” and edible flower blossoms transformed Rio Mesa’s dessert into an edible work of art. Ana Sanchez and Brannon Barr from Oxnard High presented bright orange ramekins of a passion fruit and ginger filling topped with cilantro whipped cream.
Surprisingly, there was no formal presentation of the dishes (Newman simply brought the plates to panel) and the judges did not discuss their opinions on the food – a misstep, in my opinion. A little interaction would have been enlightening for both the competitors and the audience, and certainly more entertaining.
In the end, the winner was Pacifica High School with its creamy panna cotta and elegant garnish. Bachmeier and Bernardo each received a plaque, a free night’s stay at the hotel, and the pièce de résistance, a chance to play “chef for a day” under the guidance of Newman — the perfect gift for young chefs hoping to earn their chops.
I may not have had the chance to taste the delectable desserts offered by Sweets by the Beach, but I eagerly await what next year’s competition might have in store for the next generation of culinary professionals.