OREM -- Most of us would rather have the kitchen to ourselves as we prepare dinner. We can concentrate on our efforts and not have to worry about someone getting in the way or questioning what we are doing.
Two chefs from Utah Valley University will undergo intense scrutiny as they prepare their menus next week. They will be watched by a panel of judges as they compete in the national finals of the American Culinary Federation's competition in Kansas City, Mo.
Victor Perez, a recent UVU graduate, will have just one hour to prepare a chicken dish of his original recipe. The judges will rate him on the taste, flavor and presentation of his creations, plus skills he uses to prepare them. Other criteria include sanitation and time management.
He is competing for the title of Student Chef of the Year, having already won the ACF Western Regional title. He follows Lyn Wells, the 2013 ACF Western Regional winner and only the second UVU student chef to win that title.
Jinkuk Lee is an adjunct professor at UVU and faces similar judging as he prepares four dishes using quail in the same 60-minute time frame. In the running for Chef of the Year, Lee has two apprentices who will work with him, but he is the only one permitted to handle the quail. As a professional chef, he will be rated on how he works with the team, guiding his assistants' efforts.
The two main ingredients that will be used by the UVU competitors had been kept a secret until recently. Perez and Lee garnered their respective top spots in regional competition in March and continued to practice in the kitchen. When the "mystery" ingredient is announced to national competitors they can begin their recipe creation and refinement process to polish their entries.
Perez, originally from Baja, Mexico, has chosen to make a French/Mexican fusion dish with his chicken.
"The sauce is a French reduction, done in mole style," he said. "I will do pork and chicken tartlets with roasted tomatillo, and I am also making a corn flan."
He said he loves creating and preparing food.
"It is about making people happy," Perez said. "I love cooking. I enjoy applying technology correctly. If you do it right it is beautiful."
Despite the stress of intense scrutiny, he also likes the competitions.
"It is a good way to express what you believe," he said. "It will represent who you are."
Lee finished his classwork in culinary arts in 2009 and graduated from UVU in 2010. He has worked in a couple restaurants since then and serves as an adjunct professor at UVU.
In May he learned he would be preparing quail for the national competition. He has to use it in four different courses and decided to create an appetizer, salad and two entrees. He didn't think quail fit in too well with a dessert, thus deciding to go the two-entree route.
Salad with quail doesn't readily come to mind, either, but Lee created one with a crispy quail leg, pinenut cream and arugula pesto, topped with a tiny sunny-side-up quail egg.
"It takes a long time, even months, to come up with the recipes," Lee said. "You work on them little by little."
Even a week before the national competition, he is considering refinements to his recipes. He said the lead in to the competition is the first time he has cooked quail, but he has now done it about 300 times for practice.
"I am kind of nervous and excited about competing," he said. "It is kind of stressful, but I am having fun right now.
"It is exciting to represent Utah and the western region."
Each participant has a dream after the competition.
"I would like to stay in the industry as a chef," Lee said. "I would love to own my own restaurant if I had enough money.
"For now I want to learn more and get more experience. If I open my own restaurant, it could be Korean. There are lots of side dishes there."
"I am interested in natural, bold flavors," Perez said. "I would like to work in places where they try to use the natural flavors of ingredients as much as they can. I like the farm-to-table concept.
"I would like to travel and work in different places and get as much experience as I can."
His preference is to work in smaller restaurants rather than large institutions like major hotels.
No matter what the outcome at the national competition, both Perez and Lee are considered talented.
"Anybody that steps up and puts their hat in this arena is already a winner," said Peter Sproul, the chairman of the UVU Culinary Arts Institute. "They are two outstanding young men. The apprentices are on their way to following in their footsteps.
"They have the desire and passion that exceeds what normal students and young professionals have. We do this for nothing. They are here committing hundreds of hours just to push themselves."