Cassie Kelsch, a chef apprentice at the University of Utah, is 18 years old and just out of high school, and it was hard not to notice the age difference between Kelsch and her more seasoned competitors at last summer’s NACUFS Culinary Challenge.
“I honestly did not think that I had a chance,” Kelsch says, reflecting back on the event. “I told myself not to worry about [the other chefs], though. I had to worry about what I had to do, and what I can control, and I had to forget about everything else.”
She did just that—keeping her cool in the spotlight as American Culinary Federation judges watched her every move. And she nailed it. Her dish, Bison Trio: Pan-seared bison with bacon-blue cheese roulade, mushroom bison braise encased in a Yukon Gold potato, with cauliflower puree and huckleberry gastrique, was prepared closer to technically perfect than anyone else’s.
Kelsch took the time to answer some questions from FM:
FM: What led you to your current job and how did you learn to cook?
Kelsch: This is my first job in the food industry. I graduated from high school and started working here for the University of Utah dining services. I learned most of my cooking skills from my grandma. I grew up cooking with her, and my dad is a real foodie, so I fell in love with preparing food. And I wouldn’t have accomplished what I have without ProStart (a nationwide, two-year high school program that merges classroom and industry).
FM: What’s a typical workday for you?
Kelsch: I make sure that we have enough product for the day, double-check that everything is prepped and ready, watch that quality is consistent and ensure that safety is a priority in my kitchen. It’s really important to me that my guests are satisfied and that our food delivery is fast. [Editor’s note: Kelsch started as a line cook, and will now be managing the Crimson View restaurant in the Union Building.]
FM: What inspires you when it comes to food?
Kelsch: I love to try anything new at a restaurant. I’m curious to see how other chefs combine different elements. That inspires my own creativity.
FM: What drew you to the flavors you used in your recipe for the competition?
Kelsch: I love the way the cauliflower puree complements the bacon-blue cheese roulade.
FM: What did you do to prepare for first the regional, then the national competition?
Kelsch: I had lots and lots of practice and I made sure to keep a positive mindset. I had chef Peter [Hodgson, executive chef] and others watch me prepare the food and critique my every movement.
FM: What are some of your favorite techniques that you show off during competition?
Kelsch: I got to show off my dicing skills. I was pleased that one of the judges complimented me about how perfect my knife skills are. I was proud at how organized and clean I was and how I had planned out my speed cart, with everything labeled and set up.
FM: Did you run into any last-minute problems?
Kelsch: Before I plated, I had some issues with my sauce. I thought about panicking, but held my cool because I knew it would be better to finish imperfectly than to quit.
FM: How did you feel when you found out you won?
Kelsch: I was shocked…and beyond happy. I was so thrilled that all my hard work, dedication, late nights and practices had paid off.
FM: What’s your favorite comfort food to make on your days off?
Kelsch: I love spaghetti. It’s my go-to food. I make homemade sauce…no canned stuff for me! I like to mix it up with beef and Italian sausage, and I always make my famous ranch garlic bread.
FM: What are your plans/hopes for the future?
Kelsch: I hope to work in a fine dining restaurant to continue to perfect my cooking techniques, and someday I’d like to have my own restaurant. I definitely want to keep competing to stretch myself and see what I’m capable of.
Contact Tara Fitzpatrick at [email protected]
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