First, Drew Bonnet avoided a trip to the hospital Friday. Then he was crowned champion of ‘The Cut.’
The first of those tasks was never truly a concern. But the Emporia native did have some early jitters to overcome. He did so in a big way, wowing the judges and winning the third installment of Flint Hills Technical College’s cooking challenge.
“It feels good,” Bonnet said. “Honestly, it’s just a huge relief to finish the competition. Coming in I was like, ‘Oh I’m not gonna be nervous, I’m not gonna be nervous.’ Then we got to the day of and I was like, ‘Am I gonna have to go to the hospital?’”
It was obvious for those who watched, however, that the last part of the above statement was said tongue-in-cheek. Even the three judges noted his cool demeanor as he worked through the three rounds of competition. His fried wonton appetizer, spring roll with a garlic and mushroom sauce entree and bread pudding dessert were more than enough to earn him the title.
“I’m not sure why you thought that was a bad idea,” judge CJ Adkins said of the entree. “It’s a great idea.
“It has great flavor and overall it was a really, really solid dish.”
Bonnet, who currently is a chef at Keller Feed and Wine in Cottonwood Falls, said his experience as a whole at FHTC and that during The Cut would be valuable for him moving forward.
“It’s super valuable,” he said. “I think it’s great the school has this opportunity for us.”
Four seniors in the Flint Hills Technical College Hospitality/Culinary Arts program participated in the third year of the competition. Similar to the popular television show “Chopped,” contestants Keyghan Reed, Bonnet, Cash Baker and Isaiah Shaver were given a set of ingredients on which they had no prior knowledge in each round. They then were tasked with creating a dish from scratch using those ingredients in a set amount of time.
The judges were Janel Wiederholt, Chef Adkins, corporate chef and center of the plate specialist for Evco Wholesale Foods, and Gus Bays, chef and owner of Radius Brewing Co.
“This competition is going to simulate what it’s like when you’re in a restaurant on a Friday night and you have 30 tickets hanging up in the window...” Adkins said “It’s really going to help them where it comes down to working under pressure.”
FHTC President Dean Hollenbeck said the competition is 100 percent student-run, with the Interactive Multimedia Design students filming and live-streaming everything in the kitchen for a packed house of more than 100 people watching in the Trusler Conference Room. The unique competition, according to Hollenbeck, has been something to be emulated by other institutions.
“This is one of the most professional things that you’re going to see done in the Emporia community,” Hollenbeck said. “Other schools are watching what we do and are starting to jump on this.”
The third and final dish of the evening pitted Bonnet against Reed — both of whom presented their own variation on a bread pudding dessert.
The judges were impressed with both takes on the classic.
“I told Gus, ‘At the end of the day, I’d hire either one of these guys,’” Adkins said.
In the decisive dessert round, Reed and Bonnet were given pecans, eclairs, pomegranate juice, camembert and strawberry leather to create their post-meal delights.
Reed said it is not always easy to work with ingredients which you either don’t know or don’t particularly like.
“The most important thing is to know your palate,” he said. “You have to know how certain flavors will blend together and compliment each other.”
The evening started with an appetizer round during which contestants had 25 minutes to create a dish using wonton wrappers, cold french fries, pecorino, ground lamb and cocktail sauce. Each contestant got to work right away on unique dishes and, when emcee Chuck Samples announced they were at the two-minute mark, they quickly began to plate their dishes.
Items the students came up with included a lamb wonton croquette, a pierogi, lamb potstickers and fried wontons. The judges were pleased with each of the creations, but most of the contestants were told their presentation needed work.
After five minutes of deliberation, though the judges liked his lamb potstickers on which he used the french fries and panko to keep it together, Baker was the first to be eliminated.
“Time management,” was what Baker said he learned from his experience.
For the entree, the three remaining contestants — Reed, Bonnet and Shaver — were given 35 minutes to create a dish using black garlic, lotus root, pork belly, a popcorn ball courtesy of Sweet Granada and dried shiitake mushrooms.
The popcorn ball was perhaps the most difficult item to incorporate, as most contestants spent a considerable amount of time just trying to decide how to use it.
“I’m really impressed with the creativity,” Wiederholt said.
Bays was especially complimentary of Reed’s salad in which he featured pork belly and a vinaigrette dressing made from the lotus root.
“I love the creativity; love the direction that you went,” he said. “Overall, I would order this in a restaurant.”
Unfortunately for Shaver, that elusive ingredient — the popcorn — turned out to be his undoing. Though the judges were complimentary of his pan-seared pork belly, he forgot the popcorn and was docked points because of it. He was the second contestant cut from the competition.
He said despite the early exit, the experience was a rewarding one.
“More than I thought, honestly,” Shaver said. “I was extremely nervous before we started.”
Overall, Bays encouraged each of the burgeoning chefs to continue forward.
“This whole thing is really special,” he said. “All of the contestants should be super proud.”