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University Chefs Step Up a Grade for Big Test

July 25, 2006|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

Mark Baida is an award-winning chef with an edgy elan, traits reflected in the two silver medals decorating his office wall at USC and the pairs of silver rings adorning his ears.

On a busy afternoon, he took a break from the kitchen to talk about chicken, describing in delectable detail the recipe that earned him his latest medal in an American Culinary Federation-sanctioned competition:

Sauteed breast of chicken with black-truffle and pine-nut chicken sausage; celery root-Yukon potato puree with cambozola cheese; peppered bacon and apple compote; rosemary-scented carrots; and French apple brandy sauce.

"The truffles bring it down more to an earthy, rustic, simple dish," Baida said, dreamily.

But not simple enough to prepare for his main customers: the thousands of students who eat at USC's dining halls, for which Baida is executive chef. Fixing vittles that fancy for legions of hungry Trojans would take too many cooks too many hours.

Besides, the diners might prefer the school's No. 1 perennial choice, deep-fried chicken nuggets.

When it comes to high-end cuisine in higher education, Baida and other college chefs say, a couple truths remain elementary:

Their most creative concoctions often never end up on the tray line. And even when students are offered entrees as nutritious as they are tasty, many opt for the greasier grub that more closely resembles their favorite fast food.

This week, six of Baida's colleagues -- he just missed the cut -- are scheduled to don toques in Toronto as finalists in the sixth annual Culinary Challenge of the National Assn. of College and University Food Services. The winner will be named Thursday. The chicken-themed contest -- no nuggets are in the running -- is part of a quality drive that college officials say has made chow in academia better than ever, to the point that universities promote their chefs and menus in enrollment pitches to prospective students.

College food is an estimated $15-billion industry, and one that has tried to get hip to health-conscious changes in student appetites, even as it contends with an ongoing assault from the likes of McDonald's and Burger King.

Largely replacing the fresh-from-a-can cafeteria gruel of lore is such fare as sushi, stir-fried tofu and hard-carved helpings of Jamaican jerked pork loin.

But far less common in dining halls are the dishes that score medals in the association's regional and national cook-offs, which are designed to sharpen chefs' skills.

The reasons include the logistical obstacles and prohibitive cost of producing gourmet meals on a dormitory scale. Then there is the question of whether the student palate will know when dinner isn't just warm, but haute.

"Sounds like it would be good," said USC student Jack Waldron, when told of Baida's chicken-and-truffle masterwork.

Waldron was polishing off an early supper at the Parkview Restaurant dining hall. He had chicken breast, potatoes and salad, but with a side of Lucky Charms cereal and chocolate cake for dessert.

Tablemate Brian Trageser dug into a three-course feast of nachos, French fries and ice cream. He expressed surprise that the people feeding him were bagging prizes.

"They're pretty much putting out the same stuff over and over here," he said. "I didn't even know we had an executive chef."

But he and his buddies did know about Baida's chicken nuggets. "They're gourmet chicken nuggets," said student Dan Fullerton, eyes narrowed in blissful appreciation. There were sighs of agreement all around.

At USC's Town and Gown kitchen, where he focuses on catered meals for special events, Baida fumed about the insatiable craving for chicken nuggets. "That's a pet peeve I have," he said. "If it was my way, I'd eliminate them."

His frustration is shared over stoves from the University of Washington to the University of Massachusetts, and many campuses in between.

Finalists in the Toronto showdown, along with other chefs, said the most popular dishes in their eateries are chicken nuggets -- a.k.a. chicken strips or chicken tenders -- and pizza.

"I hate to say it, but it's true," said Laura Strunk, a finalist who is catering chef at Notre Dame University.

Strunk's competition entry is sauteed breast of chicken sambuca served on a bed of braised lentils, accompanied by a pistachio mousseline with caramelized carrots and fennel.

It won't be found in any Fighting Irish dorms.

"You could probably do this for about 25 people," Strunk said. "It probably would be a little labor-intensive."

Peter Imranyi, chef manager for Rutgers University, cited the same problem with his Toronto bid. He's pan-roasting a Frenched chicken breast with a braised potato, leek and Swiss chard ragout, shaved fennel, celery root and a sherry-apple emulsion.

"It's designed more for an a la carte menu," he said.

University of Washington sous chef Jacob Moyer said he also doesn't have the means to mass-produce his finalist recipe for students. But if he did, would it be a hit?

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