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The S.Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition, now in its 11th year, is an event dedicated to searching for and unearthing some of the hottest rising culinary talent throughout America. This year's winner was Kristen Thibeault a culinary student from Le Cordon Bleu College in Boston. Thibeault beat hundreds of culinary students and wowed judges such as Mitchell Davis of The James Beard Foundation and Tony Mantuano who runs the Spiaggia restaurant (this year nominated for the JBF final in the outstanding restaurant category) with her vegan offering of Porcini Crusted Vegan Sweetbreads.
The young chef, who says she's been cooking since she was just 10, won a cash prize of $13,000 for taking first spot in the competition. She will also receive a one-year paid apprenticeship with one of the guest judges from this year's competition. Speaking about AFC and some of the amazing talent to take part in the 2013 event, Judge and chef Tony Mantuano said, "When I was coming up as a chef, we did not have competitions like this and I wish we did. In particular, this competition is great for the industry as it stresses the importance of mentorship. The students are able to hear from established chefs who share their experiences. "As judges, we look for well-rounded, well-seasoned, well thought-out dishes. You would be surprised how something as simple as season can knock someone out of contention."
What makes a chef stand out according to Tony Mantuano? "Technique and flavor are the two things that are so important. One cannot succeed without the other and both are challenging for new chefs. Before this competition, where could they stand in front of chefs from across the country that gives them valuable feedback? That’s the beauty of the Almost Famous Chef competition." And how ones goes about recognizing true talent? "They have the confidence in how the plate is seasoned arranged. Most of the times it’s fewer ingredients that really show talent. Too many aspects and ingredients it becomes mumbled."
Kristen Thibeault's talent certainly won her the final as she grew from strength to strength as the competition progressed. She's a chef with a strong vegan foundation who has picked up a great palette and huge diversity in her cuisine through extensive travel from a young age. FDL also caught up with Kirsten fresh from her win to find out how she lived the competition and some of her views on dining:
Tell us a little about you, where you're from, your life, hobbies, passions, what makes you tick?
I was born in a very small farming community in Minnesota. From an early age I dreamed of traveling the world and being a chef. As a global citizen I am passionate about cultural exchange, experiencing new and unique places and flavors, and am always up for the "next big adventure."
When did you realize you wanted to be a chef?
I started cooking when I was 10 or 11. While other kids where out playing, I was trussing chickens and canning pickles with my grandmother and foraging for morel mushrooms with my grandfather. After college I pursued a successful 18 year career in PR and marketing keeping my passion for cooking as a hobby. It wasn't until a cancer diagnosis in 2008 that I decided to follow my life-long dream and become a chef.
How did you feel when you won the AFC?
I'm still in a state of disbelief but I am so grateful for the opportunity and the incredible mentoring that comes with the win.
Can you describe the dishes you cooked and how you devised them?
My Signature Dish was Porcini Encrusted Vegan "Sweetbreads" + Celeriac Green Apple Puree + Truffled Wild Mushroom Ragout + Frito Misto of Fennel, Baby Red Onions and Baby Bok Choy + Apple Gastrique.
I developed the complex flavor profile of this dish by breaking down the key components I knew needed to be represented and then designing each component to be a stand-alone winner. For the Mystery Basket, I didn't have the luxury of time and planning as I did with my signature dish. I was the first contestant and when the mystery ingredients-- cod, shrimp, clams, and mussels were revealed, I had 15 minutes to name my dish, commit to a plan and then 1 hour 45 minutes to present 15 plates. I presented Butter Poached Cod + Herbed Parisienne Gnocchi + Seafood Sauce Vert + Lemon Herb Salad.
Tell us how winning AFC will change and help your career develop?
It already has changed my career in so many ways and opened so many doors. Most importantly, the opportunity to apprentice under one of the chef mentors will probably have the greatest impact on my career and my skills as a chef. Working with S.Pellegrino will undoubtedly lead to many opportunities as a young culinary eager to learn and grow.
You cook vegan dishes, why is this?
It is healthy, interesting and delicious. I believe plant-based food has a place on the tables of the best restaurants in the world.
What's your culinary dream?
To build a culinary brand that helps people live healthy lives and makes a difference in our world. I want to build a brand that is not only delicious but meaningful. I hope to host the first vegan cooking show on network television, write a series of cookbooks, and launch a line of healthy ready-to-eat meals for people on the go.