Published March 12, 2015
It’s a real-life version of “Chopped,” the popular Food Network competition show, but featuring chefs who work for collegiate food service operations.
UB’s Seth Williams, assistant executive chef for Campus Dining & Shops, will be making his second appearance next week in the Northeast Regional Culinary Challenge, which takes place during the National Association of College and University Food Services’ (NACUFS) Northeast Conference, hosted by Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Williams earned a bronze medal at last year’s regional competition for his lobster and grits.
The winners of each of the six culinary contests taking place this month as part of NACUFS regional conferences will square off in July at the national NACUFS conference for the unofficial title of top collegiate chef.
The chefs taking part in the regional contests — including Williams and the nine other competitors in Providence — will have 60 minutes to prepare four portions of an original hot entrée featuring the mandatory protein, buffalo flank steak, as well as side dishes and sauces. Williams’ dish: sumac and chili grilled bison flank steak with juniper and blueberry gastric. Side dishes include potato cannoli, sautéed Brussels sprouts with cauliflower puree and wild mushrooms with sage.
The Culinary Challenges are sanctioned and judged by the American Culinary Federation (ACF). Entries are judged on organization, cooking skills and culinary technique, and taste. The chefs cook before a live audience of college and university food service managers and industrial suppliers.
Williams says he developed his dish by starting with the concept of native/New World food and ingredients. “It evolved into wild flavors and modern plating techniques,” he says.
Last year’s competition was his first — “I always had an interest (in food competitions), just not the means to get there. With CDS supporting me and NACUFS being the venue, it just worked,” he says.
The experience, he recalls, “was nerve-wracking. But I kept my cool and put together a nice plate.” The contest is a “multi-medal event,” he notes, in which chefs are judged to a standard, not against each other. “But there is still some friendly competition going on,” he adds.
A native Western New Yorker, Williams was born and raised in Newfane, the youngest of five boys. “If I wanted eat, I had to learn how to cook,” he jokes.
He is a graduate of the culinary arts program at Niagara County Community College and a sous chef certification class at Kendell College in Chicago.
He’s worked at UB for three years, starting as a chef manager and most recently as assistant executive chef. He is a certified executive chef (CEC), accredited through the ACF. Before joining the CDS staff, he worked at some “mom and pop” restaurants, as well as for large corporations.
Cooking for college students, Williams says, has turned out to be a “surprising” endeavor. “Forget the cafeteria,” he says. “Students coming up now expect fresh, trendy, healthy food. I love it, the challenge and the learning opportunity for myself and my staff.”
Williams says he’s always had a passion for food. “The way I was brought up, dinner as a family every night gave me something to look forward to,” he says. “My mother and grandmother would can, jar and process all sorts of fruits and vegetables to get through the winter months. Because of that, I didn’t even know you could buy those things in the grocery store until I was a teenager,” he says. “Let’s just say, I didn’t grow up on Kraft mac and cheese and hot dogs.”
Williams says he enjoys competing in the NACUFS contests. “I like to be challenged. To come up with an original competition plate overnight just doesn't happen,” he says. “This plate (bison flank steak) took me about 10 runs before it was dialed in. And even then, there were no guarantees I would be in the challenge — that’s just for the application process.
“Now the true practice begins.”