S.Pellegrino’s Almost Famous Chef competition is off to a strong start. The contest, which is in its 11th year, offers culinary students the opportunity to vie for a yearlong mentorship with one of the master chef judges who preside over the finals at Napa Valley’s Greystone CIA. Contestants from all over the US and Canada convene at 10 locations for regional cooking competitions, with the winners from each location convening for a final Top Chef style face-off. Read on for details and winning recipes.
This year’s Almost Famous spokesperson is Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia, Top Chef and James Beard Foundation fame. Mantuano grew up in an Italian family, so food is second nature for him. His restaurant Spiaggia is Chicago’s only 4 star Italian restaurant, and according to Mantuano, mentoring from within has been a key part of fostering strong and consistent leadership in his businesses. I had the opportunity to speak with Tony about the competition and he was kind enough to share some of his thoughts on the subject.
JH: Almost Famous is the only competition of its kind and represents an extraordinary opportunity for young chefs to receive tutelage from masters. Why is this so important? Can you share a bit about the personal value this holds for you?
TM: I think that most of current workers in the food and beverage industry have never experienced culinary mentorship. I wish I had a competition like S.Pellegrino’s Almost Famous Chef available to me when I was starting out. I think it’s an important part of one’s education. You get to hear from someone who has worked in the industry successfully and learn from his or her experiences. I recommend all culinary students and rising cooks and chefs find a mentor they can relate to.
JH: Given how unusual it is to see young culinary students/aspiring chefs receive mentoring beyond the standard 4-6 week internship, what -if any- message would you like to send the industry at large? What is the value of longer-term mentoring?
TM: Long-term mentorship is valuable, as I believe it will increase the success rate of the restaurant and of the chef. When you’re able to continue to mentor students and aspiring chefs you help them achieve their goals – it’s good for everyone. For example, at Spiaggia we ensure that our cooks and young chefs are given mentorship opportunities from myself, our executive chef Sarah Grueneberg and other team members. Because of this, we rarely have a need to hire sous chefs from the outside. We’ll start them as interns and then develop their skills, give them the proper tools and work on their goals. It has worked well at Spiaggia and my other restaurants Bar Toma and Terzo Piano – I was even able to staff those restaurants with chefs that grew and learned at Spiaggia.
Having spent nearly 25 years in the culinary industry, this competition lands near and dear to my heart. In 1980 not many women were entering the field, and no mentors were available to show me the ropes of the industry. Mine was a trial by fire, and it birthed a commitment to “pay it forward” by mentoring aspiring young chefs. I’m thrilled to see that women are bringing a strong showing to the start of the games: women won the first three regionals: the Midwest, New England and Northeast. They also represent 3 culinary schools that are new to the competition. Kamisha Jones, from Louisville’s Sullivan University took the Midwest with her Seared Breast of Duck, Cranberry Apple Chutney, and Sauce Gastrique. Kristen Thibealt from Le Cordon Bleu in Boston won New England with her Porcini Crusted Vegan “Sweetbreads” and Mushroom Ragout.
And Linnea Shumway from Paul Smith’s College swept the Northeast competition with her Mushroom Stuffed Chicken Breast with Root Vegetable Butter Sauce. I have adapted all of these winning recipes for preparation in the home kitchen.
Stay tuned as the competition unfolds for more recipes and news on the 10 finalists. The final showdown will be in the Napa Valley in mid March.