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Mmm, Mmm Good!

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Mmm, Mmm Good!

If you cook it, they will come. Faculty, staff and students streamed into the TC Café on Thursday, June 17, to sample everything from Cowboy Flank Steak with Chimichurri to flourless chocolate muffins--the culinary handiwork of nearly two dozen of the College’s armchair chefs.
And it was, as the saying goes, all good. “I am just amazed how many great cooks we have here at TC,” said Provost Tom James after sampling the various dishes. “It’s also very nice to see everyone together. It’s wonderful to see everyone mingling and enjoying the food. If you cook food, we’re here.”
 
The epicurean experience, formally known as the Community Cook-off and Tasting Celebration, was the last course on the menu for the College’s yearlong community-building effort, spearheaded by the Office of the Vice President for Diversity and Community Affairs. The wide-ranging initiative has sought to engage faculty, staff and students in discussions on how to enhance a sense of community and build pride in the College. It was launched last October with a community-building forum that made use of the “Teaching The Levees” curriculum developed by a faculty team led by Professor Margaret Crocco and based on filmmaker Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.
 
Janice Robinson, Vice President for Diversity and Community Affairs, said the community-building initiative could not have worked without the involvement of a substantial cross-section of the College. The work was extensive, including a series of nine focus groups, three major College-wide meetings, collaboration with TC’s Management Network, and a number of other measures. The goal of the cook-off, Robinson said, was to end the year on a “fun and warm” note.
 
“I am thrilled for the TC community,” Robinson said of the large turnout. “People really stepped up and contributed with their talents and there is such great energy in the room. It’s also great that the event involved a mix of faculty, staff and union members. Everybody came and participated, which made it special, and the chefs were terrific and, of course, the food was absolutely delicious.”
 
All of the TC chefs donned blue aprons that read Top Chef: TC Community Cook-Off. They dished out bite-sized portions of their creations into small plastic containers as facilities worker Aubrey Mason played piano, followed by the Morningside Jazz Trio of TC staff members Angelo Miranda (vibes) and Paul Acquaro (guitar) and faculty member Jim Corter (bass). On the menu was a dizzying variety of appetizers, entrées and desserts.
 
Jeff Jaech, Associate Director of TC’s Office of Access and Services for Individuals with Disabilities, served up one of the more exotic concoctions: beef with cactus. “I love to cook and I especially love cooking Mexican food,” he said. “The nice thing is that this dish has a complex flavor but it’s not that hard to make, and I think most people have never tried cactus. So why not?”
 
For Jaech, it was truly a labor of love. He prepped the vegetables the night before, seared the beef in the morning before heading to the office, and lugged his crock pot to work and fired it up during the day to have the dish warm and ready by the afternoon. The judges liked it so much, they selected it as the best entrée, and Jaech walked off with any foodie’s dream come true: The Professional Chef, the massive, 1,200-page tome on all things cooking by the “Harvard of cooking schools,” the Culinary Institute of America.
 
“How great is that?” he said. “I think this a fantastic event. I’m surprised to see so many people here, especially in the middle of June. It’s such a nice way for everyone to show off their talents.”
 
Ida Esannason, an administrative assistant in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching whose service to TC spans more than three decades, approached the cook-off with more trepidation, worrying whether anyone would like her old family recipe for lasagna with pork. She stayed up all night working on it and then, just to be sure, tested the dish out on her office colleagues prior to the cook-off.
 
“I was going to take my lasagna and run,” she said. “I’m not a cook, and all last night I kept thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’”
 
When her co-workers made short work of an entire tray, she finally was convinced. “I said, ‘Okay, I guess I will try.’” The judges awarded her second place in the entrée competition.
 
Carpenter Rocco Diomede, meanwhile, prepared southern Italian meatballs, made from scratch and expertly seasoned. “The seasoning is the key,” he said. “You have to use only the best salt and seasoning.” Within about a half hour, his tray full of meatballs was gone.  “Of course,” Diomede said with a sheepish smile. “They were good.”
 
Cook-off Day was also Name Tag Day, with many employees scrawling their names on stickers and wearing them on their labels and shirts. Robinson said the name tags were another useful and fun way for people to call each other by name and build community among everyone.
 
The cook-off had 12 judges, including faculty and professional and union staff, all of whom volunteered their time and discriminating palates. One of those judges was Mark Lee, Assistant Director of Major Gifts, who scored all of the entrées for taste, combination of ingredients, originality and that utterly subjective and unquantifiable “Mmm, mmm good” factor.
 
It was tough, Lee said facetiously, but somebody had to do it. “Some of the judges were tough, they critiqued the food. But to me, all of the food was good. I was the only one to give perfect scores.”
 
Professor John Allegrante, a self-described foodie, also served as a judge. He was on the panel that evaluated the appetizers and side dishes, and found the food to be uniformly tasty and the event a rousing success.
 
“I think the event speaks to not only the importance of community, but the importance of food in our culture,” Allegrante said. “It just shows how food can bring people together, and food that is prepared with care and with creativity can catalyze a lot of good social interaction.”
 
Account Clerk Roger Winslow, who also was one of the judges, said that it was great that all who participated in the event also got to vote for their favorite dish as a part of the People’s Choice Award. “To include everyone in the judging is ever inclusive and ever important in bridging a shared experience,” he said.
 
Given the success of the event, there is talk of compiling a cookbook with all of the recipes and donating the proceeds from the publication to charity. 
 
Community Cook-off and Tasting Celebration Winners

Appetizers/Side Dishes (Judges: John Allegrante, Nancy Streim, Leyla Thompson, and Roger Winslow)
 
First Place
 
Lori Fox (Black Bean and Corn Salad)

Second Place
 
Yvonne Wallace (Rice and Peas)

Third Place
 
Julia Mayshark (Cornbread Casserole)

Entrées (Judges:  Scott Fahey, Mark Lee, John Saxman, and Marsha Streeter)
 
First Place
 
Jeff Jaech (Beef with Cactus)
 
Second Place
 
Ida Esannason (Lasagna with Pork)

Third Place
 
Daniel LaJoie (Cowboy Flank Steak with Chimichurri)
 
Desserts (Judges: Ice Callwood, Margaret Crocco, George Schuessler, and Nancy Velez)
 
First Place
 
Katie Embree (Pumpkin Bread Putting)

Second Place
 
Mary Rojas (Flourless Chocolate Muffins)

Third Place
 
Ena Haines (Rum Balls)

People’s Choice Award (Judged by the votes of all who attended.)
 
Tom Goltsch (Cheesecake)
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