Cameron Whitlock had only taken three courses in the Salt Lake Community College culinary-arts program when he volunteered to take part in a public cooking competition. The competition was part of an event at the college’s main campus announcing a $30,000 grant from the The Dannon Company, Inc. Three students from the program were paired with local celebrity chefs to see who could prepare and present the best dish for a college audience.
Of course, the chefs had to use yogurt in each of their dishes.
Sarah Lowe had no experience in cooking competitions of any kind prior to the Dannon event. “I have never competed before; it sounded fun,” she said. “This event was a great way to get some experience competing.”
“Honestly, I was really nervous,” Whitlock said. “I didn’t have any idea what I’d do. But then, that’s how I learned to cook—throwing random ingredients that I happened to have in my house together and trying to make something out of it. I had a lot of fun with it.”
Lowe characterized the days leading up to the competition as exciting. While she didn’t know what to expect, she found her advisors at the college capable of providing invaluable help. “Stephanie Tanner, the president of the Culinary Club at SLCC, was very helpful at answering all my questions,” she said.
Whitlock’s experience with on-the-fly improvisation and use of seemingly arbitrary ingredients tailor-made the nature of the competition to his skill set. The competitors held a draft, in which each team selected one ingredient until they each had what they needed to make their dishes.
Whitlock had a construction career working as a framer. Cooking for himself and his friends after work was something that he enjoyed. “My friends all told me that I needed to find a job where I could cook, because it always made me so happy,” he said.
When he lost his construction job, he had some money saved and decided to pursue a new career in cooking. He found work at a local senior center. “At first it was hell. I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “But I stayed with it. I really wanted to figure out what I didn’t know how to cook. I learned a lot, got better, and decided to go to school to study culinary arts.”
Like Whitlock, Lowe has long had a love for cooking. Her decision to enroll in the college’s culinary-arts program was based on it being the only program in Utah currently accredited by the American Culinary Federation.
Lowe called the competition a great learning experience. “It was fun to answer people's questions about what we were doing and show off our dishes,” she said. “The time limitations weren't too short, we had 45 minutes to get our dishes out, so we had just enough time to get everything cooked and plated nicely.”
All three competitors put together dishes they were comfortable with and that were big hits with the audience that had gathered for the event. Once the dishes were finished and plated, all the students could do was wait for the panel of judges to offer a ruling.
“I think waiting for the judges was the worst part,” Lowe said. “Because once you put your dish out, there is no turning back or making changes, so you hope it is perfect.”
Judging the competition wasn’t easy. Competition judge Amber Billingsly—Vinto’s pastry chef, named Utah's best for 2012 by Salt Lake Magazine—was overheard describing one entry as particularly appetizing, but perhaps ill suited to a competition that aimed at finding a dish that college students could make using the ingredients found in their refrigerators.
“Even though I was still a little nervous waiting to hear the judges announce the winner, I had such a good time, and Joy was so good to work with that I wasn’t too worried about the outcome,” Whitlock said of working with the college’s public-relations director and culinary enthusiast, Joy Tlou. “I’d already had such a good experience just being in the competition. Joy was so on the ball, he knows a lot and really communicated well. I knew we’d done a good job.”
The Whitlock-Tlou team’s salmon-salad sandwich was announced the winner. All three dishes were very well received by audience members, who lined up to get a taste after the results were announced. Lowe’s yogurt chicken kabobs, like Whitlock’s salmon sandwiches, were all consumed by passersby.
All three students said the experience was hugely positive for their education in the culinary-arts program. “After I complete the culinary program here at the college, I am planning on finding a job in the Salt Lake or Park City area as a chef,” Lowe said. “And later in life, I hope to own a restaurant with my husband.”
Whitlock, too, is eager to make a cooking career his life’s work. “Right now I work at the Cheesecake Factory. When I got hired, I told the other chefs, ‘This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life—cooking food for people,” he said.