What does it take to be a winner?
Specifically, what does it take to be a winner in the world of competitive cooking?
Two area restaurant professionals know all about cooking competitions and have recently tasted the thrill of victory.
Sean Turner, executive chef at Louie in Clayton, won a national pasta competition and will be competing against international chefs in October. Michael Newell, a cook and certified professional steakmaster at the LongHorn Steakhouse in O’Fallon, Mo., made it to the semifinal round of a national companywide steak-cooking contest.
Both said the key to winning was in the preparation.
“My philosophy was to stay calm and not get too anxious. It was really easy once I started cooking,” said Turner, who added that the hardest part of the experience was navigating the hoopla that surrounded the contest, which was held in Pebble Beach, Fla.
Newell said his training involved “a lot of book work, and just going through the motions at your own store. Double-checking the steaks before you send them out.”
Both the book work and the double-checking were necessary because the LongHorn competition began with a written test; the meat of the contest, so to speak, involved cooking four perfect steaks to the perfect temperature.
For Turner, the pasta competition, which was sponsored by Barilla, all hinged on the recipe he developed especially for the contest — Bucatini Pistachio Pesto.
For this dish, Turner made a pesto from basil, fennel fronds, pistachios and Parmesan cheese, all ground together with lemon juice, parsley, shallots and a lot of olive oil. The pesto is served on bucatini pasta, which is like a thicker but hollow version of spaghetti.
“It is the kind of food we would do here at Louie. So I thought it was important to do something that represented the restaurant. It fits in with our style,” Turner said.
The competing chefs could choose which type of pasta they wanted from a special line of Barilla pastas. Turner chose the bucatini because the hole through the middle helps it cook well and the size makes it a little heartier than spaghetti.
“The goal of the competition was to make the pasta the star of the dish. The pesto is simple and subtle enough that you just enjoy the pasta itself,” Turner said.
The steak competition that Newell faced was all about precision. He and the other cooks had to prepare four steaks — two medium well, one medium and one medium rare.
“Medium well is the most difficult to put out. It’s a very small temperature range,” Newell said, adding that a medium-well steak is cooked to 145 to 155 degrees.
“They judge you based on your seasoning, your sear, the inside of the steak, the colorization and the temperature,” he said.
Of course, the competitors were not allowed to use meat thermometers. They had to judge the doneness of the meat by touch alone.
LongHorn cooks steaks with the bones attached on a grill, and boneless steaks on a flat-top stove. The competitors had to tackle both, and all at the same time. At the semifinals, which were held in Kansas City, they only had 15 minutes to prepare four steaks and two side dishes of their choice. Newell picked creamed spinach and cauliflower au gratin.
The divisional semifinal was “definitely more intense” than the first two rounds, Newell said, and he did not advance. But in the fall, Turner will be on his way to Paris to compete in the international version of the pasta contest. It will be his first trip to the City of Light.
When Turner went to the national tournament, the restaurant was short-handed in the kitchen, so he couldn’t bring another cook to act as his sous chef. Instead, he brought the restaurant’s bar manager, Natalie Marshall, who also happens to be his girlfriend.
Marshall’s family runs Ruiz Mexican Restaurant in Florissant, the area’s oldest Mexican restaurant. Even though she does not have much professional experience in a kitchen, she grew up in the business.
“It was a first, but she did great. She was perfect,” Turner said.